Deciding If QR Codes Will Work for Your Small Business

If you’ve leafed through your favorite magazine or gone window shopping lately, you’ve probably noticed QR codes, those small black-and-white boxes filled with a pattern of tiny black squares.

Proponents of these codes, also called 2-D bar codes, say they are the future of interactive shopping. They work like this: Shoppers with smartphones download special application software for free, then open the app and hold their phones over the codes they see in print ads, outdoor ads, direct mail pieces, business cards, and so on. In-depth information about a product is then displayed on their phones.

With the codes popping up all over, small business owners may be wondering if this is something that would work, or is even necessary, as a part of their marketing efforts. It’s a good question. But there are some other questions marketers need to ask themselves before they decide if QR codes will work for their business.

Who Is Using QR Codes?

Recent studies show that there is a long way to go to educate consumers about the value of QR codes. Two-thirds of high school and college students, the group most interested in new forms of technology, say they don’t know what the codes are, according to a survey by youth marketing firm Ypulse. Of those who do know about QR codes, only 17 percent have actually scanned one. Of the total group surveyed, almost 20 percent said they can’t, or don’t want to, figure out how to use the technology.

In another survey, this one conducted by Chicago-based market research firm Lab42, almost 60 percent of adults surveyed were not familiar with QR codes. Only 13 percent of the respondents were able to use a QR code when asked by Lab42 to do so. And GfK MRI Starch Advertising Research found that only 4 percent of magazine readers who noted ads with QR codes in the first half of 2011 actually took out their phones and scanned the codes at least once. By comparison, 14 percent of people who noticed a magazine ad visited the advertiser's website through traditional routes, according to GfK.

How Easy Is It to Use QR Codes?

The most successful technologies are not always the newest or the most sophisticated but the ones that are most convenient and the easiest to understand. Certainly QR codes are impressive outlets for up-to-date information, photos, video content, and reviews about your products, but they can be cumbersome to use. Consumers need to first download an app then have that app open whenever they want to scan a code. In many cases, it might be easier for customers to instead type a short web address into their smartphone browsers to get the same information. A URL can be displayed in the same way that you would post a QR code.

What Am I Trying to Communicate with QR Codes?

Beyond the marketing message, QR codes can communicate your company’s ability to be ahead of the curve. If that is an important part of your company’s branding, your customers are probably the early adopters who enjoy trying new technologies. QR codes for them are a no-brainer, and you should be trying them out.

One example of where QR codes are getting traction: the auto industry. Among the people who saw a Porsche ad in a recent issue of the magazine Men's Journal, 17 percent used the code, reported GfK. And Nissan recently decided to put window stickers with QR codes on new vehicles in its dealerships to provide people with a silent salesperson when they are shopping after hours or want to browse uninterrupted.

The key questions to ask are whether your customers would use the codes and what information makes sense to communicate in this fashion. Some experts say the codes are unlikely to ever become mainstream; at best they will serve as a curiosity or a novelty, in part because the information could be disseminated more quickly and easily in other ways. But for others, it’s just another part of their overall communication strategy, an inexpensive tool that grabs people’s attention and reminds them to check out your online marketing.

Be sure to also check out Use QR Codes to Enhance Your Mobile Marketing.

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