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Top 14 Things Marketers Need To Know About QR Codes

  |  June 2, 2011   |  Comments   |  

A crash course on tools, tactics, and best practices for your 2d barcode marketing campaign.

By Angie Schottmuller

I recently spoke at SMX West and SES New York on best practices for mobile marketing with QR codes. Here's a follow-up crash course on tools, tactics, and best practices to confidently help you jumpstart a 2D barcode marketing campaign.

1. A QR code is a 2D barcode.

QR ('quick response') codes are an encoded barcode image resembling a square-like maze. Unlike a one-dimensional UPC code, a two-dimensional barcode stores data in both directions and can be scanned vertically or horizontally to be decoded.

2. 2D barcodes can store a variety of data.

A traditional 1D barcode (UPC/EAN) stores up to 30 numbers, while a 2D barcode (QR) can store up to 7,089 numbers. The additional storage capacity accommodates a variety of data beyond product pricing:

  • Text
  • Hyperlink
  • Telephone number (phone call)
  • SMS/MMS message
  • Email (send message)
  • Contact entry (vCard or meCard)
  • Calendar entry (vCalendar)
Storing a hyperlink presents a myriad of possibilities beyond just loading a web page - play a video, download a mobile app, check in on Foursquare, update a Twitter status, 'Like' a Facebook page, display map directions, and more.

3. Read/decode a 2D barcode by scanning it with a smartphone.

(A 2D barcode reader app is required to decode the encoded data.)

4. 2D barcodes can be placed in and on nearly any location.

Once the barcode image is created, it can be printed on nearly any surface and location - newspapers, TV ads, billboards, temporary tattoos, product packaging, clothing labels, cake frosting, and more. This enables you to drive traffic, interaction, and conversion from anywhere. 2D barcodes excel at bringing non-digital media to life. (Note: Use caution placing barcodes online. They should always enhance the user experience. If a user could click a hyperlink, don't make them scan a code to complete the same task.)

Bear in mind the location must be easily scannable. Plastic frames and packaging can reflect light. Lighting can cast shadows, and hillsides and subways can kill Wi-Fi access. Consider all contextual factors that could impact the scanning experience.

5. Mobile barcode scanning is on the rise.

QR codes can be used for nearly any function (logistics, advertising, customer service, etc.) for B2B and B2C across a variety of industries. Best Buy uses QR codes on in-store price tags for quick access to online reviews. Golf Digest uses Microsoft Tag in its magazine to accompany tips with interactive video. Real estate agents use 2D barcodes on 'for sale' signs providing prospective buyers access to virtual tours, and libraries are using QR codes to facilitate learning via interactive scavenger hunts.

6. QR isn't the only type of 2D barcode.

The most popular 2D barcode formats are QR code, DataMatrix, ScanLife EZcode, and Microsoft Tag (Tag).

There are several key differences in these code formats. ScanLife EZcode and Microsoft Tag are proprietary formats only decodable by their tools, while QR and DataMatrix formats are open standard. (Additional format differences can be addressed in another blog post.)

A Google Trends analysis of these 2D barcodes shows 'QR code' dominates by far from a search popularity perspective. QR has become a common term used to reference a 2D barcode (2D code, mobile tag, mobile barcode, etc.) even when the codes are technically a different format. Even @MicrosoftTag uses the #QRcode hashtag on Twitter.

7. Tools to generate and read 2D barcodes are free.

Tools are available for all major mobile phone handsets. To run a 2D barcode campaign you'll need the following:
  1. 2D barcode generator (website service)
  2. 2D barcode reader (mobile app)
  3. [Optional] 2D barcode management/tracking tool (website service)
Generators

Different generators have varying features. Choose a generator based on the options for:

  • Code format (i.e., QR, EZcode, Tag, etc.)
  • Stored data (i.e., hyperlink, meCard, SMS, etc.)
  • Output (i.e., color, size, download file type, etc.)
QRstuff.com is a comprehensive QR generator providing a variety of stored content, color, size, and output options. ScanLife's generator creates their proprietary EZcode as well as QR and DataMatrix formats. Microsoft Tag only generates Tag.

Note: To generate a code on the ScanLife or Microsoft Tag sites, you'll first need to create an account. (Tag requires providing personal info like birth date, gender, etc.)

Readers: Microsoft Tag and ScanLife EZcode can only be decoded by their respective reader apps. Because of the open standard for QR codes, dozens of reader apps are available. (DataMatrix is usually supported on most QR readers.) Some mobile handsets come with a reader app pre-installed.

The following 2D barcode reader apps work on the majority of phones/handsets.

Reader App Code Formats Download Link (from your mobile phone)
RedLaser QR, UPC/EAN redlaser.com
BeeTagg Reader QR, DataMatrix, BeeTagg get.beetagg.com
AT&T Code Scanner QR, DataMatrix, UPC/EAN scan.mobi
ScanLife EZcode, QR, DataMatrix, UPC/EAN getscanlife.com
Microsoft Tag Tag gettag.mobi
RedLaser and AT&T Code Scanner also have geolocation features for local price comparison shopping.

8. Management tools are available to track scanning analytics.

URL-shortener and web analytics for 2D barcodes storing URL hyperlinks are a great start. For comprehensive scan tracking, you'll need to use a barcode generator tool that includes tracking analytics. (These tools are not independent.) Some management tools will merely track the number of scans while others provide detailed metrics like demographics, repeat scans, geolocation, and more. Collected analytics depends on the reader app used for scanning, so data results may vary.

Management tools are relatively inexpensive and sometimes free. Paid plans typically have a free trial with fees based on the number of scans.

2D Barcode Management and Tracking Tools:

9. 2D barcode content should provide special value for the customer.

It's work to scan a barcode, so users have higher expectations as to what content they will find. Reward the user with discounts, exclusive content, or useful tips relevant to the code's context. Consider scenarios that leverage smartphone features (email, SMS, phone call, video, map, apps, etc.) to save the user time.

For example, including a QR code on a business card that links to a meCard would be a lot easier than the user manually entering the contact record. In contrast, a QR code that links to a website home page adds limited value.

Note: If you link to a web page, make sure that it's mobile-friendly.

10. Small or complex QR codes can't be scanned by smartphones with lesser quality cameras.

Complex 2D barcodes (a lot going on, not very dense) are more challenging and time consuming to scan. In the case of QR codes, more stored content forces a larger code size. In general, it's best to minimize data stored in 2D barcodes. Always use a URL-shortener to shrink hyperlinks. (Add analytics tracking parameters before shortening the link.)

Warning: Small, complex QR codes are the number one mistake currently being made by marketers. (Microsoft Tag and EZcode formats generally don't have this issue.) Smartphone cameras with resolution less than 4-megapixels can't scan a QR code smaller than about 1"x1". Moreover, without the auto-focus (AF) camera feature, a complex QR code will have the same scanning issue, even if the code is larger. The iPhone 3GS and BlackBerry are popular handset examples that lack both of these camera features. Unscannable codes kill and delay the adoption rate for 2D barcode campaigns.

Tip: Always provide a back-up (i.e., hyperlink, SMS text message, etc.) option for users to retrieve info within the code. A back-up enables non-smartphone users to also participate.

11. Consumers need guidance to scan 2D barcodes.

The variety of code types, readers, and different terminology is confusing to consumers. Nielsen Company estimates that only 40 percent of U.S. mobile devices are smartphones as of Q1 2011, growing to almost 50 percent by Q3 2011. That means there are a lot of smartphone rookies that barely know how to use their phone, or distinguish differences in mobile barcode formats and reader apps. As long as 2D barcodes are a novelty concept, always include a brief step-by-step guide with the context of your code.

Logical steps:

  1. Get the reader app
  2. Scan the code with your mobile device
  3. (Action that happens upon scanning)
Tip: For the reader app download, include a URL link or SMS shortcut to expedite the process. This step is imperative when using proprietary Microsoft Tag or ScanLife EZcode formats since only one reader is capable of scanning their codes.

Steps two and three can be combined as a call-to-action. Example: "Scan to..." (watch a video, download our app, call customer support, etc.)

12. 2D barcodes can be customized artistically.

QR codes include an Error Correction Level (ECL) that enables 'damaged' codes to still be scanned. The error level tolerance (set by the code generator) can be as high as 30 percent. As a result, creative license can be used to create designer QR codes from a variety of colors or materials (i.e., jelly beans, sand castles, product packaging, etc.) as long as there is adequate contrast to read the code.

When it comes to advanced QR code graphic design, it's harder than it looks. If you want to get fancy, I recommend connecting with QR art experts at QRarts.com or Delivr.com.

Microsoft Tag also allows for artistic codes. Their custom tag tool allows users to generate art from codes or even overlay codes on top of photographs.

Note: Some artistic design is fun and good to see; however, don't go overboard. As long as 2D barcodes are a novelty, it's important that users easily recognize a scannable code from a distance.

13. Testing scannability is imperative.

Before you mass print or distribute barcodes, be sure to test for scannability. Testing factors:
  • Smartphone cameras (resolution/auto-focus)
  • Reader apps
  • Scan context (i.e., lighting, shadows, surfaces)
  • Scan distance
  • Scan timing

14. Seek expertise to ensure successful campaigns.

To ensure campaign success, consider consulting with a mobile barcode marketing expert, especially if it's your first time running a mobile barcode campaign. Technology, trends, and tools in this arena are rapidly changing. A few hours of expert consulting can bring your team up to speed, help optimize campaigns for success, and avoid unnecessary embarrassment for poor implementation.

Expertise goes beyond consultants: talk to your web analytics guru and learn all you can about the mobile users currently accessing your website. Seek out mobile marketing industry statistics regarding popular devices and demographics to appropriately target your audience. (Compete, ScanLife, and eMarketer provide regular useful reports.) Follow the #QRcode Twitter hashtag or subscribe to "QR Code News & Mobile Trends" (Paper.li) for the latest news and case studies.

Finally, download my QR Code Best Practices Checklist & Campaign Worksheet to help plan and manage your campaigns:

Next Steps...

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