You see them plastered on everything from magazine pages and sidewalk displays to product signs and transit advertising. They look like boxy Rorschach inkblots and they’re frequently accompanied by an arrow and the bold-type guidance, “scan me.”
Welcome to the growing world of Quick Response (QR) codes. They’re 2-D bar codes, typically black and white, that can be scanned by a smartphone with a code-reading application. Also known as matrix codes, they come in many shapes and sizes and provide a fast and easy way to transfer information or point to a website.
Unlike the traditional one-dimensional bar code on packaging, they can be read horizontally as well as vertically and can contain much more information. (A QR code can hold over 4,000 alpha-numeric characters — that’s about 30 tweets .)
QR codes have been popular in Japan for over a decade, but are just starting to catch on the U.S., said Philip Wocken, the director of emerging media for the d.trio marketing group in Minneapolis.
"With the growing popularity of web-enabled smartphones, more and more U.S. consumers will have the ability to interact with QR codes," Wocken told BusinessNewsDaily. "Retailers are increasingly using QR codes in stores at the point of sale to further educate consumers or give them more information. "The QR code will direct shoppers to the retailer’s website or to a third-party product review website where they can find out more about the product without leaving the aisle."
Best Buy, Brookstone and Target are among the many retailers who have rolled out QR codes in their stores and their advertising. Delta and Continental Airlines use QR codes for boarding passes, Chicago’s Anti-Cruelty Society began using QR codes in ads on public transportation and the host of “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” held up an LP-size QR code to plug a band that was playing on his show.
They’re becoming ubiquitous. You can find them on websites like this one, on apparel and on physical locations such as buildings and park benches. If it’s stationary, it can be tagged with a QR code. And it’s a technology that is available to small businesses.
"QR codes are not just for the national big box retailers," said Wocken. "Small businesses can also utilize QR codes to deliver content to their customers and prospects in unique ways. Since small businesses are still trying to figure out the best ways to use QR codes to accomplish their objectives, the businesses that do it first and do it best will set themselves apart from the competition. We’ve found that smaller businesses are more willing to embrace QR codes than some of our bigger clients."
Eyelevel Interactive, a uniform-as-media business near Atlanta, incorporates QR codes in interactive uniform apparel that transforms employees into movable billboards. And Addy Saeed, a real estate sales representative in Toronto, uses QR codes on marketing brochures for properties with their videos as well as his contact information.
"I’m implementing another step where QR codes will show up on my 'for sale' signs so prospects can scan them and get information about the property," he said.
QR codes come in two major flavors, the QR Code format and the Microsoft Tag format. Both have their ardent fans, but QR codes seem to be gaining more traction, especially since they were picked by many large national retailers such as Best Buy and international companies such as Delta and Continental.
The readers for both types are free but there is no universal application so far that will read both, which may be a barrier to more widespread adoption. While Microsoft Tags offer some advantages over QR codes, such as the ability to use color and a robust tracking system, they can only be decoded with readers that come from Microsoft.
Creating QR Codes is also free, with numerous sites offer QR conversion such as QR.net and Create QR Code. Microsoft similarly offers the free Microsoft Tag Manager. Companies that want more complex treatments call on a variety of vendors, including marketing agencies.
Boston ad agency Rattle elected to use Microsoft Tags on Boston Harbor Cruises brochures. The tags linked directly to videos of the company’s four different cruises and gave users the option of going to an online ticketing store or forwarding the video to a friend.
"There were two reasons for choosing Microsoft," said Sally Murphy, a partner at Rattle. "The tags can point to different URLs over time. You can easily update or change associated content without having to reprint the original piece on which the tag appears. And the reporting capabilities are much stronger, including heat maps to track where users are coming from."
Wocken at d.trio comes down in favor of QR.
"I like the QR codes because they’re more universal and have the most readers," he said. "For Microsoft Tags you need to have the Microsoft reader. If people don’t have the right bar code scanner, they’re not going to be able to read the code."
QR codes are sprouting up everywhere and their uses appear to be unlimited where there is information to be conveyed. But they’re still a couple ticks on the clock away from prime time.
"They’re trendy, they’re cool and they’re functional," Wocken said. "But it’s still a bit early-on in the U.S. If you’re trying to get a nontechnical audience, you may be putting them off."