by Kate Mulcrone | July 29, 2011
You’ve probably seen a QR code before, either in a magazine ad or a store window, but you might not have known what you were looking at. First used in Japan in the mid-1990s, QR codes—that’s short for “quick response”—are an updated version of the bar codes that can be scanned by most smartphones to take users directly to websites, download files, or even add new contact information to their address books. According to a projection by forecasting giant Nielsen, the majority of Americans will own smartphones by the end of this year. That makes now a great time to jump on the QR code bandwagon.

Many QR codes are humble black-and-white-patterned boxes, but the possibilities for customizing them are nearly endless. Colors, logos, and even artistic designs can be created quickly and painlessly, and the resulting bar codes can be used at any size. 

Macy’s has done a lot to advance the cause of QR codes in recent months by running 30-second commercials introducing consumers to the new technology in conjunction with the department store chain’s Backstage Pass campaign. Its new twist on smartphone marketing uses QR codes—bolstered by “old-fashioned” text messages—to give shoppers point-and-click access to exclusive content like video interviews with Macy’s star designers. 

Macy’s isn’t the only big name in the game; Target, Best Buy, Lego, and Calvin Klein have all stepped up their use of QR codes. Post Cereals even created a web-based sitcom around its QR code campaign. Indeed, marketers are finding increasingly creative uses for these two-dimensional wonders, and event planners are quickly following suit. 

Lara McCulloch, the branding, marketing, and social media strategist behind the bustling #eventprofs Twitter community, points out that QR codes are a tool that should fit into your larger digital strategy. 

“When communication real estate is limited and a marketer is looking for a creative way to direct readers to more information, or when the user experience can be elevated by taking a static medium (i.e., print) and making it interactive (i.e., web or SMS), you’ll want to think about your digital strategy,” McCulloch says. “QR codes are great when, for example, attendees are on the go, smartphones in hand, and you want to prevent ‘read it and forget about it’ syndrome, or even when you’re looking to reduce the paper waste from your event.”

Getting Started
“QR code” is becoming a catch-all term for two-dimensional scannable bar codes, but QR is actually a registered trademark of Denso Wave, a division of Toyota. Many other companies, including Microsoft and Google, offer their own 2-D codes.

“QR codes have actually been around since the early ’90s and have been used for most of this time in Asia and Europe, but in the past couple of years they have exploded in North America,” says McCulloch. “QR codes can be a useful tool, but they’re also misused and over-hyped quite a lot. When I’ve seen them used well, it always comes down to elevating the user experience or serving a purpose—for example, helping to green an event by cutting down on printouts.” 

McCulloch attributes American marketers’ newfound interest in the technology to both the proliferation of smartphones and an increasing shift toward interactive information. Since QR codes are easy to scan—once you know how—as well as unique looking and easy to spot, you can put them on virtually anything. 

Get Creative
The possibilities for use range from relatively mundane—i.e., printing a QR code on the back of an attendee’s name-tag that takes him to the meeting’s agenda—to truly interactive, like hosting a QR code-based scavenger hunt during an event to encourage teambuilding. 

A QR code projected onto a screen can direct audience members to a downloadable version of a speaker’s presentation, or when printed on the back of an invitation can link to a personal video message from your CEO talking about the importance of the event. The codes are useful for building interactivity after the event as well, such as directing attendees to a survey or a Facebook album of photos from the event.

While autogenerated QR codes are fairly generic looking, designers have begun customizing them with colors, logos, and even collages. Last June, Canada’s National Design Center featured a large QR code installation, and musicians like Kylie Minogue have started incorporating QR codes into videos and album covers. The artistic possibilities are limited only by time and your design budget.  

A Hybrid Approach
McCulloch points out that to encourage people to scan your code, you’ll likely need to include instructions; she even suggests creating an incentive for scanning. A QR code that goes to a post-event survey could include a secret word that attendees include in their response in order to be entered into a giveaway, for example.

“Definitely don’t rely on your QR code as the only source for readers to get more information,” she says. “What information will you provide for those who don’t scan your code? If you are using a QR code to direct people to a website with a long URL, consider including a customized bitly link as well,” for those who won’t scan or do not own a smartphone—there still are more attendees out there without smartphones than you think.

There also are occasions where QR codes simply don’t make sense. If you’re organizing a small meeting or you know your group contains more than a few Luddites, you may want to go retro and resort to handouts. 

McCulloch also discourages using QR codes when it doesn’t make business sense. “As businessmen and women, we need to ask questions a lot more. Why is this relevant? How does it fit with what we’re currently doing? How will I measure success? And the most important question: How will this add value?” she says. “If you’re doing it because everyone else is doing it, a lot of people are talking about it, or it seems cool, odds are you’re participating in a gimmick.”

And sometimes QR codes are more complicated than they’re worth. You should always consider whether a phone is the ideal delivery method for your content, and whether you have a mobile-friendly site to direct people to. 

McCulloch had one client ask her if she should incorporate a QR code on the company website to direct people over to its blog. “The answer was a resounding no,” she says. “It’s far more convenient for your reader to click a link on a website than to get out their phone, open an app, scan a QR code, and read your site from their phone!”