QR Codes: A Beginner’s Guide

I want to take a moment to weigh in on “QR Codes”.  QR Codes or “Quick Response” codes aren’t new.  They actually originated in Japan back in 1994.  Denso Wave, a subsidiary of Toyota, began using them to track automotive parts in vehicle manufacturing.  Over the past several years they’ve gained popularity as businesses and organizations have discovered unique ways to use them in their marketing, advertising, and promotional efforts.
So… what IS a “QR Code”?  It’s that strange looking little symbol made up of black and white squares that you’re beginning to see more frequently in magazines and newspapers, on brochures, business cards, posters, billboards, websites, and even television advertisements.  This two dimensional barcode image links offline content with online content via your Smartphone.  It can contain a message, a URL, a phone number, and even email and text messages.  By using the camera on your Smartphone, along with the appropriate software app, you can “scan” (snap a photo of) the QR Code and instantaneously you’ll have access to the information embedded in that code.
I’ve created one.  Go ahead… try it.  It contains all of the elements associated with, what I consider to be, a correct use of QR Codes for small businesses and organizations.
You’ll notice… it’s a simple “mobile friendly” page containing a “Special Offer” message, social networking links allowing users to connect with me online if they choose, a way for me to track usage and ROI, and finally a phone number so users can, in a single click, contact me directly.  All of the content is viewable within the screen parameters… without scrolling, searching, etc…  I’ll expound on additional uses in future articles.  For now, this is intended to be a starting point for beginners… and a guide for those who have tried to use QR Codes but still aren’t recognizing any benefits.
With that said, I’ve compiled a list of some basic “Do’s & Don’ts”.
If you intend to use QR Codes… DO:
  1. Keep size and accessibility in mind.  I recommend no smaller than 1.0″ by 1.0″ for print ads.  Obviously larger is better.  For displays, signs, billboards, etc… consider how close you’re going to allow me to get.  Is it on a billboard or a sign 45 feet above my head?  Is it on a display ad or poster 20 feet behind the counter?  QR Readers can be “picky”.  Lighting, glare, flash, printed material, (ie: newsprint vs. glossy pages), Smartphone camera settings and quality, all play a factor in a user’s ability to scan and read the code.
  2. Make sure your QR Code isn’t too dense.  The smaller the dimensions and the more dense the code, the harder it will be for QR Readers to translate.
  3. Keep the information associated with the QR Code simple and concise!  A simple html page with mobile use in mind like the example above is a good start.  It ensures use on most, if not all mobile platforms.
  4. Make the experience worthwhile!  Users are expecting something for their effort.  This is your opportunity to obtain, engage, and keep anyone who takes the time to scan your code.
  5. Use a QR Code on every piece of offline marketing material that you can.  Your newspaper ad audience is different than your magazine ad audience which is different than the audience receiving your newsletter… your mailings… your business cards, etc…  Using my example above, you might consider a unique QR Code for each specific piece of advertising and marketing material.  This will go a long way in helping you recognize where your communication and traffic is coming from.
  6. Include a brief message near your code… “Scan this for…” and include whatever the fruit from that effort will be.  10% off your next meal.  Buy one, get one free.  $20 off event ticket price. You see the point.
  7. Test… test… and test again.  This can be somewhat challenging for some, however, I suggest you try it using a variety of phones and a variety of QR Readers.  Sure… it might work just fine on YOUR Smartphone… with the app YOU’VE chosen… but it would be good to have a second… and even a third opinion.  You’ll probably find that you’ll want to tweak your content a bit before you launch.

If you intend to use QR Codes… DON’T:

  1. DON’T send me straight to your website home page, Facebook Page, Twitter or LinkedIn account.  I’ll scan your code once… and never scan another of your codes again.  Not everyone uses Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn… and for those who DO, not all of them use these on their phones or mobile devices.  I know that may sound harsh… but I’m expecting something… as is anyone else who recognizes QR Codes and uses them.  “WOW” me… make me want to interact with you… do business with you… or attend your event.
  2. DON’T send me directly to a video or mp3 file.  Not all smartphones can play all formats.  You’re limiting your audience.
  3. DON’T use them just because you think everyone else is therefore you need to as well.  Put some thought and some simple creativity into its purpose and make it worthwhile for YOUR business and YOUR audience.
  4. DON’T bury your QR Code in a “busy” environment.  Keep a clean border around it and stay away from dark backgrounds.
  5. DON’T bother putting a QR Code on something posted in the window of your business if you’re in an area with no mobile coverage.  If I come by and you’re closed… it’s not going to do me any good.  I’ve seen situations where people have left brochures or business cards outside in a display.  At least I can grab one and use it when I get back into mobile range.
There’s definitely an endless variety of ways QR Codes can effectively be used… linking to map locations, RSS feeds, as part of a contest or an engaging promotional “scavenger hunt”, on hats, shirts, etc… However, as a strong advocate of “baby steps”… this is a good start for small businesses and organizations who want to “dip their toe in the water”, get a feel for it, and begin figuring out how best to strategically use this technology to their benefit.
QR Codes can be generated for free and take less than a minute to obtain.  The one above was created at Kaywa.com.  Another simple resource is quirify!  An additional resource offering some advanced options is delivr.com.
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