Picture this: you walk into your neighborhood café. You order your large, no-whip-soy-mocha coffee beverage of choice. Then, you proceed to pay for your designer café experience when you see a small sign on the counter. The display asks you to use your smartphone to scan this black-and-white puzzle image to give you the nutritional facts for the drink you just ordered. “Okay,” you say. I’d like to know that. Well, then you realize you have no idea how your mobile phone actually scans the strange-looking code. You pay for your purchase and head to the office.

W3 Consulting Web Services QR Code

You don’t know how many times I’ve heard about this same confused response from consumers as I travel the country’s main streets. And, I hear the same bemoaning from small business retailers who have put QR codes on a variety of marketing materials. As a Small Business owner, it’s key that you understand some of the basics of any new technology you use for marketing (tactics) and the marketing strategy you must design to make these new Web and mobile technologies effective.

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What is a QR code? And, how do I read and create a QR code?

In its most basic sense, a QR (quick response) code is just a two-dimensional barcode. The scanner (which encompasses a mobile device with software that someone uses to read the code) gets data from both the X and Y axis of the barcode. The Universal Product Code (UPC) barcodes you’re used to seeing scanned at the grocery store are just one-dimensional and read along an X axis of the barcode.

I recommend that the best way to learn about QR codes is to scan them as you see them with your own smartphone to see what they do and how you interact with them. That starts with having a smartphone; I recommend this Google Galaxy Nexus if you don’t have a smartphone yet. There are several applications for most smartphones on the market (and are typically free). Some have more frills than others, but since we already have too many options in the world here are the best apps I’ve found on each major mobile platform:

  • Android | Google Goggles;
  • Apple iOS devices (iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad models) | RedLaser;
  • BlackBerry | QR Code Scanner Pro;
  • Windows Phone | RedLaser; and,
  • Symbian devices (Nokia phones, mostly) | BeeTagg QR Reader.

Remarkably, you can usually scan the 1D barcodes on most products at the store or home and you can have Google display information you might be seeking about them, including price comparisons. (Caveat Small Business owner: customers are doing this in your shops by picking up your products off of the shelf and seeing if Amazon or big box retailers around you are less expensive.) So, once installed, you hit the streets and start looking for QR codes to scan. You’ll learn so much about what’s good, and what’s not good about QR codes in short speed.

Next, once you’re familiar with QR codes as a user, you’ll want to jump over to generating some QR codes for your business. While there are many reputable QR code generators to create for personal use and sharing, say at your neighborhood association’s upcoming potluck dinner, there is a very specific requirement for generating QR codes for business purposes. When it comes to marketing strategy on the Web, it’s all about the data (so see #4 below when you get there). So, you will want to use a service such as Bitly’s URL shortening service or Google’s URL Shortener, Goo.gl, to create your QR codes. Here’s how:

  1. Make sure that you have signed into either service with your account (and if you don’t have one, sign up for a free account at Bitly, which I recommend signing up separately the manual way–not with Facebook or Twitter–with your work email address, or Google).
  2. Now, you’ll have the opportunity to paste any URL on the Internet into the fields offered by the service (see below).
    Where to paste your URL to create your first QR code in Bitly
    Here is where you paste your URL in Goo.gl
  3. Once you’ve created your shortened URL, you’re going to copy-and-paste your new short URL to the Web browser address field.
    1. In Goo.gl, you’re going to add a plus sign (+) to the end of your short URL, so for example, if your short URL was http://goo.gl/dwHw8 you’d simply now add + to make it http://goo.gl/dwHw8+ and it will take you to a new page with a QR code. You right-click and save the image to your computer.
    2. In Bitly, you’re going to add “.qrcode” to the end of your short URL. In the case of my newly created short URL, https://bitly.com/NspAW2, will become https://bitly.com/NspAW2.qrcode to reveal a QR code for me to right-click on for saving the image to my computer.
  4. That’s it. You have your QR codes and you’re ready to print and place them on marketing collateral. And, as stated above, the most important reason we chose Bitly and Google to create our short URLs is for the analytics tools that are built directly into them. If you add that plus sign (+) to the end of any Goo.gl or Bitly short URL, it will take you to a web traffic statistics page that tells you how many and where from came scans of your QR code.

So, now that you’re capable of creating QR codes for each marketing collateral item or fixed location you’d like to track scans, you’re ready to think about the marketing strategy.

Why aren’t my QR codes working?

So, now back to my beginning vignette at the coffee shop. What went wrong there? If you’re using the QR codes generated by any reputable program or website as I described above, it’s not the technology that’s gone awry. Nope, it’s the strategy. Business cards and print media advertisements and radio spots and QR codes are only as good as the planning that goes on behind them. So, what’s a busy Small Business owner to do? Read on.

First, ask yourself the reason for using QR codes. Mobile technology moves at lightning speeds of innovation. And, you want to make sure your business isn’t beaten to the purchase punchline by your competition (or by the greater market), right? So, you’re using this technology to enable your current customers to generate repeat business and to incentivize your potential target audience to make that first purchase. Some of your customers and target audience won’t understand the technology. Guess what? It’s your job to educate them. That means you need to have information on your marketing collateral or available on your website explaining (a) what the QR code is, (b) how to get software to scan the barcodes, and (c) what’s in it for scanning it.

In the vein of what’s in it for them?, you must really think about what the QR code is leading your client to do. Some of the things a QR code can do are:

  • launch your website (main page or specific Web page on your site) or your blog (or a specific post);
  • launch the marketplace or store directly to download your mobile app;
  • launch your company’s mobile Web app (hopefully written in HTML5 to take advantage of the smartphone’s geolocation and calling capabilities);
  • launch an app on the smartphone that might provide a service while I’m standing in a specific location (such as, launching the Foursquare application so that I can “check-in” and gain access to a Special Offer if I make a purchase);
  • open a document that displays information;
  • play a video that gives an introduction, explanation or tutorial of your product/service;
  • post a tweet from a Twitter profile with 140 characters of your choosing; and,
  • opens up your eCommerce site, a specific product page or checkout cart with your product/service already added so your customer can immediately pay and go.

The beauty is that with a little creativity and some understanding of your customers’ and potential audiences’ needs, these functionalities can really help you (increasing revenue or decreasing costs) and your target market (improving your customer service or product/service performance while providing more convenience).

Next, sometimes you have to encourage, coax and possibly flatter your clientele into doing what you want. This is where incentives can really work well. Sometimes an incentive is as easy as a good call-to-action. “SKIP THE LINE! SCAN THIS QR CODE AND CHECKOUT YOURSELF.” In a long line at a store, if I could scan a QR code that launched your mobile Web app (which let me then scan all the products in my cart) and checkout online, I would happily skip the line. Then I would walk up to a clerk who checked my online receipt and away I went. While, other customers may need a bit more. If you’re attempting to get me to download something, make sure to tell me there’s a bonus deal on the last page of the download. Or, if not a bonus deal, offer a special discount, exclusive content or access that is only capable by using that QR code. Again, be imaginative while understanding your market.

On the vein of understanding your market, one QR code limitation to overcome is a practical matter. I can’t understand why QR codes don’t list the short URL to where the scan leads if it’s a Web address. There are many times that I’m in the subway (which may not have cellular service) or other rural environments without a sufficient signal. In those cases, I can’t do what the QR code wants me to right then and there rendering it useless. As well, I might be in a hurry and I’m not going to wrench my smartphone buried in my pants pocket to open up an app that takes 10-20 seconds to launch, then scan the QR code and finally get to what you want me to see or do. By then, I’ve missed my bus or train, or the person behind me will be honking at me to pay attention to the road! I’m just not that patient (or an unsafe driver) and I have longer than average-length patience. If you just put the short URL below the barcode, I would have memorized it or scrawled it down on my receipt and when I was in a more controlled setting with sufficient Web access, I’d go to the short URL and engage with your company. If it’s capable of being done, please put your short URLs beneath your QR codes. Your customers (and I) will thank you.

Finally, QR codes are really meant for fixed locations but they’ve been expanded to also be placed on marketing collateral that moves. If you have them on a fixed location, you know where they’ve been scanned. Period. Your data are specific to location and you don’t need to guess. But, what if you put your only QR code for business card, flyer, rack card, front door of your shop or office, and on your employee’s uniform shirts? Well, now you have a problem. Your business card you likely want to help the person scanning quickly access your contact information and download it into his or her smartphone. On the other hand, the front door of your shop or office should really take me to your Google+ Local (formerly Google Places) page with your hours of operation. And, your flyer advertising your upcoming sidewalk sale should take you to information about what will be there and special offers for coming out to it. However, one QR code cannot do all those things. Enter multiple QR codes. Each QR codes is simple enough to make, which you learned how to do in the section above. And, now you know that each piece of marketing collateral has a different purpose and therefore needs a separate QR code. You are now a QR code marketing strategy expert. Good luck with your mobile marketing campaigns!

And, how do I get a beautiful QR code?

Transform Plain QR Codes to Branded QR Codes

So, now that you know the basis of a good mobile marketing campaign strategy that includes QR codes, you should probably learn how to make the QR codes branded. I hosted the first presentation in our ongoing Webinar series for W3 Consulting and we covered manipulating QR codes to help make them look a little less, let’s say, ugly. ;-)

Here’s the archive of the Webinar: Beautifying QR Codes. And, here’s a video addendum to one of our attendee’s questions about rounding corners in QR codes: Rounding Corners of QR Codes Using GIMP.

Getting Beyond Just QR Codes!

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