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Cracking the QR Code – Part 1

QR codes are those funny looking barcodes that seems to be popping up everywhere lately from billboards and magazine ads to cereal boxes and t-shirts. They have been around since Japanese company Denso Wave invented them in 1994, but have only recently become popular here in the United States. In fact, according to a report from Mobio Identity Systems Inc, QR code scanning in the US increased 1200% during the second half of 2010 alone!

QR stands for “quick response” and scanning one of the 2D barcodes does just that. The code may direct your mobile browser to a specific URL, an online video, generate a text message or even make a phone call.


Scan to watch one of my favorite Ad Council PSAs

To scan a QR code a smartphone with a barcode reader is required. Some phones have this built into the camera application, but others such as the iPhone require the user to download a barcode scanning application like BeeTag or ScanLife.

To the right is a QR code I just created using the free a QR code generator from Kaywa Inc. Be sure to download a barcode scanning app if your smartphone did not come with one installed, and give it a whirl.

One major thing QR codes have going for them right now is the “cool factor.”  People are curious to know what will happen when they scan a QR code and marketers are taking advantage of that.

For a QR code to work, I think it needs to be either fun, provide a utility, or offer an incentive to users. Here are some examples of each:

Useful: At Best Buy, you can scan QR codes for products, leading you to the mobile site where you can read consumer reviews, compare related products, and send to a friend.  Though I tend to do my research online before visiting a store like Best Buy, I think this can be useful for tech-savvy shoppers.

Fun: A QR code gives this resume a very clever twist.  Though this was for personal use, I think it serves as a great example to brands of how you can be very creative with QR codes.

Incentivized: Ethical Bean Coffee in Vancouver doubled their business using QR codes! Customers scanned QR codes to order their coffee on the go. Incentives included a 50% discount on coffee and decreased wait time at the coffee shop.

Along with the cool factor and the success stories, it is important to recognize the challenges to working with QR codes. David Wachs, President of mobile marketing company Cellit, outlines many of these in his blog post 11 Reasons Why QR Codes Suck.  I think he makes some great points including:

Lack of follow-up: With text message campaigns you can re-market to the user that texts in to your shortcode – because once they text in you have very valuable information: their phone number.  Unless your QR code takes the user to form where they fill out contact information, there is no simple way to follow-up with them.

Smartphones only: Though smartphone penetration is quickly growing in the US, you may be surprised to learn that the majority of users do not have a smartphone at this time. According to comScore’s 2010 Mobile Year in Review, smartphone usage in the US was at 27% as of December 2010.

People do not know what they are! So, you already know that less than half of the US cell phone population will be able to interact with your QR code. Now, try asking around your circle of family and friends if they know what a QR code is and how to use it. Odds are many of them will be unfamiliar. Likewise, you may notice QR codes are often accompanied with instructions to “download a QR reader app and scan the barcode for more information.”

So there you have it, both sides of the trendy QR code.  What do you think? Is the QR code a passing fad or the wave of the future?  Let us know your thoughts in the comments and stay tuned for Part 2, all about QR codes and social marketing campaigns.

Vanessa Protass
Written by Vanessa Protass

As Digital Media Manager, Vanessa oversees the distribution and tracking of online media for all Ad Council campaigns. This includes web banners, rich media, Google AdWords, and mobile marketing programs – a little bit of everything! She’s also part of the Social Media Team, bringing you your daily dose of Ad Council on twitter and facebook. In her spare time, she eats way too much and blogs about it at

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