QR Codes: The Next Big Thing for Interactive Small Business Marketing

The Web itself may be a wonderful marketing tool, but Web addresses are marketing nightmares. URLs are often long, obscure, and difficult to remember; throw one in a print ad or on a billboard, and you've got a hot mess on your hands.

That's why more businesses are turning to quick recognition code technology. You've probably heard of QR, even if you don't know exactly how it works or what it does. But you can be sure that QR is going to play a major role in shaping how people interact with digital content, and even with the world at large.

Bar Codes on Steroids

Traditional bar codes are one-dimensional constructs that can only hold up to 20 numerical digits. That's fine for machine-readable product codes, but it's not enough to encode even a Web address, much less anything more complex.

The QR code, on the other hand, is a two-dimensional code that can hold thousands of characters of information. It can include text, Web addresses, and phone or SMS numbers. A user can scan the code with a camera phone and access a wealth of information, either directly from the code or by being linked to a website or other information source. Think of QR codes as bar codes on steroids, and you get the idea.

QR codes were first developed by Denso Wave Inc., a subsidiary of Toyota Corp., to track vehicle inventory data, but the technology soon took on a life of its own. QR has been used widely in Japan for the better part of a decade, and the growing number of smartphone users in the United States means the codes are finally catching on here as well. And since Denso Wave has endorsed QR as an open standard, there are no patent or licensing issues to interfere with its business use.

Sample QR code generator.

The QR code isn't the only such bar code standard competing for attention these days. Others, such as Data Matrix codes and the Microsoft Tag format, are also available. At this point, however, it's clear that QR is winning the 2-D bar code popularity contest.

Easy to Build, Easy to Read

One of the biggest advantages of QR technology is just how easy the codes are to work with. A website like Kaywa will generate a free QR code that can include up to 250 text characters. Another free site, Kerem Erkan, also supports the ability to build actions into a code, such as instructing a smartphone to browse a website or even make a phone call. Give either of these tools or any other QR generator a try, and you'll see just how simple it is to start using the codes.

The other side of the coin, of course, is the software used to read QR codes. Code reader apps such as QR app (for the iPhone) and Barcode Scanner (for Android) turn a smartphone's camera into a QR code scanner. In fact, it's hard to even name the "leading" QR apps at this point, since there are now so many of them available. As a result, you'll almost certainly want to experiment with several QR readers on your smartphone to select a favorite.

QR Code Marketing: Endless Options

Want to get started using QR codes in your business? Try a few of these common applications on for size:

  • Place a QR code on the back of your business card with contact information or links to your website.
  • Include a QR code in storefront displays, allowing window shoppers to look up an item or even buy it online.
  • Use QR codes to serve up promotions, coupons, or discounts, either in traditional print ads or in-store displays.
  • Use QR codes for guerrilla marketing at events, on stickers or placards, on company vehicles, or on merchandise such as T-shirts.
  • Create QR codes that lead customers to your landing pages on social media sites or to subscription pages for email updates.
  • Put the codes on menus, receipts, ticket stubs, shopping bags, or almost any other item that your customers carry with them.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of ways to use QR codes; in fact, merchants are applying the codes in so many ways and with so much creativity that it's almost impossible to keep track of the uses. And that's the point: QR codes are becoming popular precisely because they offer so much flexibility and room for creativity.

Whether QR codes are here for the long run is anyone's guess. But for now, it's probably impossible to find a hotter -- and potentially more valuable -- interactive marketing tool for your business.

Sample QR code generator.
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