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Keeping Pace with Quick Response Codes

December 2011

Smartphone capturing image of QR code.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably seen the ubiquitous square-shaped barcodes that are popping up on everything from magazines and t-shirts to billboards and buses. Called QR – or “quick response” – codes, they’ve been profiled on The Today Show, in Inc. and Fast Company and in USA Today. Google QR codes and you’ll get more than 3.7 million results.

But what exactly do these codes do? Who’s using them and why? How do you create them and how on earth do you read them? In this column, we’ll give you an overview of everything you need to know about what just might be the
hottest trend in marketing right now.

A Better Barcode
Created by Toyota subsidiary Denso Corporation (today Denso Wave) in 1994 to track vehicles during the manufacturing process, the QR code is an enhancement of earlier one-dimensional barcodes such as the Universal Product Code. Because UPC codes store data horizontally, they are only capable of storing up to 20 digits, whereas the two-dimensional QR code that can contain information both vertically and horizontally can carry up to 7,089 numeric or 4,296 alphanumeric characters.

In addition to its higher data capacity, the QR code also takes much less space to print, encoding the same amount of data as a traditional bar code in approximately one-tenth the space. QR codes also have a built-in error correction capability that means data can be retrieved even if the symbol is partially dirty or damaged. Finally, unlike UPC codes that must be scanned at precisely the right angle, QR codes are readable from any direction.

Users and Uses
According to Internet Retailing magazine, a June 2011 study by comScore found that 14 million mobile users scanned a QR or bar code on their mobile device, with more than half of those users scanning codes at home, nearly 40 percent scanning codes in a retail store and 24 percent scanning grocery store codes. About 30 percent of that group had also scanned data while at work. Men ages 18 to 34 comprised 53 percent of QR code users.

There are too many examples of major brands using QR codes to list them all, but notable recent initiatives include HSN’s recent four-day QR-a-thon, Victoria’s Secret’s racy “Reveal Candice’s Secret” campaign in which the code covered a certain part of the model’s anatomy, and even a summer 2011 U.S. Postal Service campaign directed at commercial mailer clients. But even if you’re not a retail giant, a consumer products manufacturer or a government agency, there are still dozens of ways in which QR codes can help you be more efficient, including:

  • >Sharing personal data. From businesspeople exchanging contact information to college students exchanging phone numbers, QR codes make it as easy as pointing and clicking to instantly share data. Other applications include sharing important medical conditions or credentials such as press passes.
  • >Enhancing business operations. Whether you need ordering and inventory support, manufacturing data including dates, production lines and serial numbers, or shipping controls to ensure accurate delivery, QR codes can help you track productivity and minimize errors.
  • >Streamlining information delivery. For industries like real estate that previously had to rely on flyers that could get wet or run out, QR codes offer a way to link interested buyers instantly to the property listing.
  • >Prompting immediate action. From QR codes at point-of-purchase to those that link to other action-oriented sites, they allow for instant access while the prospective customer is actively engaged with your product or service.
  • >Improving event marketing. QR codes offer a great mechanism to share a lot of information quickly and easily, from dates and parking information to links to instant online registration.
  • >Providing real time updates. Because they frequently link to information that is updated far more often than printed material, QR codes are a good choice for time-sensitive information such as the current inventory of new vehicles an auto dealer has on hand. Educating and providing additional information. From self-guided city tours to museums, from nature trails to trade shows, QR codes allow us to instantly gather information and resources about any point of interest.
  • >Facilitating user experiences. Piggybacking on the spike in social media, QR codes can leverage tools such as Google Place window decals that allow customers of area businesses to read or write reviews, find special offers or flag the business for a future visit.
  • >Tracking marketing effectiveness. By incorporating QR codes into advertisements or even vehicle wraps and driving people to trackable landing pages, companies can better gauge their return on investment to better allocate marketing expenses.
QR Do’s and Don’ts
Horror stories abound about incorrectly-applied QR codes, from the trade show that featured QR codes with links to all of the exhibitors’ non-mobile-friendly websites to weak links that don’t achieve results. According to 2K Marketing graphic designer Shirl Fitzpatrick, an approach such as the one they used for a recent charity run that featured a link to online event registration is more effective for the end user than just a link to the organization’s home page.• DO maintain a “quiet zone” margin of white space around the QR code.
DO use a site like to shorten your URLs and keep your code from being too complex.
DO use as few characters as possible – the more characters, the more complex the code and the more likely the QR reader will have problems.
DO add unique branding like your logo or colors. For instance, Macy’s recently incorporated a QR code into its recognizable red star.
DO consider the viewing distance – the further away the code, the larger the code should be printed.
DO use a site such as to add a fully functioning LIKE button for Facebook.
DON’T send readers to a website that is not mobile friendly.
DON’T create a QR code smaller than one square inch.
DON’T cover up the corner blocks.
DON’T forget to test your code on several different phone platforms before you produce it.
DON’T link to your home page.

Generating and Reading QR Codes
So now you know why it’s important to use QR codes, but how do you actually go about creating one?

There are a number of sites you can use to create free QR codes, although if you want a code customized with your branding, you can probably expect to pay a fee. Also, keep in mind that if you are working with an agency or vendor to produce your piece, they should be able to create your code for you as part of their services.

For instance, according to Rick Vohrer, owner of two Signs By Tomorrow graphics centers in Middle River and Aberdeen, his staff can assist customers with developing QR codes for their signage, exhibit materials, posters and more. Likewise, Bel Air-based 2K Marketing offers QR code creation as part of its suite of online business solutions.

As far as reading the codes, there are also plenty of free choices. Users with a smartphone can download the QR reader of their choice and then open the reader to quickly scan the code via the phone’s camera function and link to the provided information.

Thinking Outside the QR Box
With the plethora of formats available to today’s QR code users, from rubber stamps to temporary tattoos and even to edible chocolate QR codes, the many applications of these convenient codes are only limited by your imagination.

Signs By Tomorrow’s Vohrer shared the story of a QR code strategy that played on the synergy of commuters needing to stop for groceries on their way home from work. Rather than having to stop at a physical store, one savvy online grocer transformed a metro station into a virtual supermarket. By printing and applying graphics to mimic the aisles of a grocery store and placing QR codes below each product, shoppers could download product information and opt to add products to the shopping cart of the online grocery store to have groceries delivered directly to their home.

Says Vohrer, “Truly creative companies will take advantages of the wow factor that QR codes can generate. In our hurry-up-and-wait society there are so many times people are stuck waiting for an airplane, in line or at the doctor’s office. QR codes provide a way to pass the time while promoting your products. And they allow people to build smarter marketing plans by better understanding which marketing tactics are most effective.”

Scanners Beware Scammers
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the ever-present scammers to figure out that QR code technology could be lucrative for them as well. To avoid compromising your data or security, only link to trusted sites and keep in mind that malicious QR codes can be affixed over legitimate ones and wreak havoc on the unsuspecting user. Actions such as enabling a phone’s microphone, camera or GPS or exploiting sensitive data can occur in the background while the user opens a harmless-looking web page.

Not the Only Code in Town
While people generically refer to most two-dimensional barcodes as QR, there are actually several different types of encoding including, PDF417, DataMatrix and MaxiCode. Micro QR Code is designed specifically for applications such as electronics that require very small printing spaces and can only store 35 numeric characters.

And while all these different types of 2-D codes might be ubiquitous, they are anything but universal, as different formats require different readers. For instance, Microsoft’s MS Tags 2D code requires the proprietary Microsoft Tag Reader. This lack of a universal reader format is cited as the primary reason why smartphone companies are not pre-installing a QR reader on new phones.

Additionally, when you consider that only 35 percent of American phones are smartphones, it becomes clear that QR codes aren’t reaching everyone. That’s why Denver, Col.-based SpyderLynk created yet another technology called SnapTags, circular rings of data that can be translated via the much broader reach of text messaging.

What’s Next?
Just when you think you’re finally caught up on what QR codes are all about, here’s perhaps the most startling piece of news yet: some industry experts think they may already be on their way out, usurped by yet another new technology called NFC (Near Field Communication) tags.

Rather than a printed code, NFC is a new type of chip that can be embedded in tags, stickers or cards and like QR codes, contain product information and other data. What makes NFC tags so appealing is the tag’s other potential uses, including photo and file transfer, product purchases at retail stores and in personal identification such as driver’s licenses. Major corporations including Google, mobile phone manufacturers, credit card companies and payment processors are actively supporting this new technology, which may just have QR codes on their way out as quickly as they appeared on the landscape.

While the mechanism may change, the trend of simplifying information sharing is almost certainly here to stay. I95