Have you seen these black and white squares on flyers, posters, or product packaging? Do you know what they are? They're QR codes (short for quick response), which can be scanned by a mobile device such as a smartphone (e.g., iPhone or Android) or tablet (e.g., iPad), leading the user to predetermined content such as a website, an instant messaging session, or SMS ("short message service") text. They allow you, as a business owner, to engage your customers or clients quickly and in a targeted way through their mobile devices.
Image 1. QR Code for Penn State Extension Website
How QR Codes Work
QR codes are more powerful than the barcodes that have been used for decades on shipping labels and product codes. Old barcodes are read by scanning a single dimensional line across the bars. QR codes have both length and width and must be read across both dimensions. Because of this, they are able to represent up to 100 times more information than a single barcode is able to do. QR Codes are easy to display and attract attention, making them a potentially powerful marketing tool, as well. Unlike a barcode, a damaged or scratched QR Code can sometimes be readable. Furthermore, a QR Code can be read in any direction. In other words, if you place this page facing up on a table, the QR code in Image 1 is readable if scanned by someone on your left, right, or even on the other side of the page.
A QR code can direct the scanner to a number of different types of information. For example, the QR code could lead to a website. The QR code in Image 2 takes the user to the Home Depot Garden Club website where information about ornamental peppers is provided. By scanning the code on the stake that is shown, a link is opened in their mobile device's browser. It's important to ensure that the site be compatible with mobile devices or that the user be notified if it won't display well on a phone.
Image 2. QR Code on a pot stake
QR codes can provide other types of content including your contact information. They can also be used to initiate communication by launching your mobile device's phone, instant messenger, or text apps. They can also simply convey a short message or be used to indicate a geographic location using your device's GPS-enabled features.
Creating a QR Code
It's relatively simple to create a QR code. There are several free QR code generator sites, for example:
To create a QR Code, simply choose which type of action you would like the scan to initiate and follow the site's guidance. Be sure to save the newly created image so that you can use it in your marketing and promotion materials. Before you use it, be sure to scan it to ensure that it works correctly.
Using QR Codes for Marketing
The best way to decide how to use your QR codes is to have a plan before you generate them. Because QR codes could serve a number of purposes, think carefully about what you want each particular one to do. One of the most common uses for QR codes is to direct the user to a website. What types of websites might you consider? Think about the potential to lead the user to a mobile-ready site to sign up for a newsletter, email list, or loyalty program. Maybe you want to send them to a discount coupon or a product description. Almost any web-based content (videos, images, Facebook, or Twitter pages, etc.) can be conveyed on a mobile device, so your possibilities are tremendous. Think strategically about how you want to use your QR codes.
As an example, let's look at how the Penn State Berkey Creamery uses a QR code (see Image 3). At times, especially during homecoming and hot summer days, the line for ice cream at the Creamery gets very long. To help customers pass the time, Creamery management placed a sign containing a QR code next to the entrance. The code leads to a YouTube video showing how Creamery ice cream is made, "from cow to cone." In that case, the objective is to educate and to help the customer endure the wait before they can get their own cone.
Image 3. Penn State Berkey Creamery QR and the YouTube video users will be directed to after they scan the code.
Farmers' market vendors have other options. QR codes could be used to lead visitors to the vendor's website where they can find information about the farm's location, a list of products grown or available at a particular time, or days/ times and location of other markets in which the farmer participates.
Depending on your objective, QR codes might be placed on brochures and other marketing materials, trucks/ trailers, product packaging, or signs. To decide where to place them, you need to understand how your customers behave. Place the QR codes where your customers (or potential customers) are. Keep in mind, though, that not all consumers use mobile devices. So QR codes should be used to supplement your other promotional tools, not replace them.
You may find, though, that some users have a mobile device but simply don't know how to use it to scan QR codes. It's possible that their device came with a scanning app installed. If not, they'll need to visit the app stores (such as iTunes Store or Androids' Marketplace) to download a scanner app. Once they have the app, they simply need to open the app and use their device to scan the code in a manner similar to taking a picture. Be prepared to educate your customers about how they can use their phones to scan your codes.
Creating QR codes may be easy; however, as with any other marketing tool, be strategic in how you implement them. You may want to begin with one or two codes to highlight specific items, similar to what the Penn State Creamery did. Change codes periodically. For example, after directing users to a specific site for six months, create a new QR code leading to a new destination so that new and timely content can be introduced. This is a good idea if your business hosts seasonal events, for example. Providing dynamic content will help you engage your customers. Try using QR codes on a small scale before you decide to adopt them more fully in your marketing efforts. This will help you to be sure to implement their use in ways that customers value.
Koran, J. (2011). 5 Steps to a Successful QR Code Marketing Campaign. Social Media Examiner. Accessed 11/8/11.
Korhan, J. (2011). How QR Codes Can Grow Your Business. Social Media Examiner. Accessed 11/8/11.
Lyne, M. (2009). What is A QR Code And Why Do You Need One? Search Engine Land. Accessed 11/8/11.
Prepared by Sarah Cornelisse, Jeffrey Hyde, and Alyssa Miller