Creating Engagement with QR Codes

QR codes may sound like something you might come across in an Ian Fleming novel or find discussed at the latest tech trend conference, but over the last few years they’ve slipped into the mainstream advertising and marketing worlds in ways that make them a viable small business tool.

First, what are they? Officially, a QR Code (Quick Response) is a matrix barcode (or two-dimensional code), readable by QR scanners, mobile phones with a camera, and smartphones. The code consists of black modules arranged in a square pattern on white background. The information encoded can be text, URL or other data.

qr codes

Think of it as a little square mark that has the potential to contain all kinds of information about a product, service, company, or person – anything really. The code is read by using a QR scanner program increasingly found on smart phones by default. Some Android phones (ZXing), for example, ship with a QR reader and dozens of iPhone apps, such NEO Reader, exist as free downloads.

Pick up just about any magazine these days and you’ll find advertisers and even editorial staffs using these codes as a way to create greater online engagement with products and stories. The current issue of Esquire magazine features an ad from Brooks Brothers with a QR code that when scanned takes you to an entire online catalog of products.

In countries like Japan QR codes are a mainstay and are used on everything from billboards to menus. (Read about that Big Mac you just ate by scanning QR code on wrapper) In our information now driven world the use of QR codes makes sense, even for the smallest of businesses. On a recent trip to New York I saw stores featuring QR codes in windows. Shoppers could potentially walk by at midnight, see something that had to have, scan the QR code and be taken to a shopping cart to buy the item.

The burgeoning use of mobile devices in the U.S. should move the use of QR technology beyond the cutting edge techies and into the realm of everyday. Use this tool to find a QR Reader for your make of phone.

Small businesses that want to take advantage of this technology can start very small.

Use this tool to create a QR code for your business card. That way when you meet someone they can scan the code and create a contact record in their phone without typing a single thing.

Use this tool to create QR codes for pages with special offers on them. Send post cards to customers with instructions for unlocking the mysterious special. This kind of interaction always improves response

Use this tool to create a series of QR codes for a scavenger hunt that leads people from clue to clue and code to code back to your place of business.

referral engine bookAuthors could easily create codes in books or in mailings to entice potential buyers with a code that gives them additional or free content. (Scan this code and find a list of URLs contained my book The Referral Engine.)

Google seems pretty big on this technology and makes it easy for you to create QR codes for you Google Places page. Use this tool to create a code with the URL shortening service.

Imagine QR codes on wine labels. Browse the store and read the tasting notes on any bottle that catches your eye.

There are countless ways you can employ this technology without spending much to do so. This is a great way to take part in a growing trend, position your business as forward thinking, and produce great practical information resources at the same time.

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John Jantsch

John Jantsch is a marketing consultant, speaker and author of Duct Tape Marketing, Duct Tape Selling, The Commitment Engine and The Referral Engine and the founder of the Duct Tape Marketing Consultant Network.
  • Pat Strader

    The possibilities are limited only by the creativity of the people putting them in play.

    Travel and tourism seems to be an ideal application. Trail markers with maps via QR Code. Video…..

    It’s been fun to watch it grow here to this point, now should be exciting to watch it really take off.

    • ducttape

      Love the trail markers idea. I could see museums doing this too

      • Pat Strader

        Smithsonian is already using it as a way to download their iphone game “MEanderthal”

  • Karen Runtz

    Now I understand what this is all about! Really appreciate that you included ways we could ease into using the codes. That first step with a new technology/application is always intimidating.

    • ducttape

      Well I find that all this techie whiz bang stuff doesn’t really matter unless people/businesses can find practical ways to start getting some ROI

  • Guest01

    QR (and 2D) Tags are merely a “gateway” to transport the User from print (or screen) to mobile.

    So, they are in invitation. That’s it.

    Whether or not they are successful depends entirely on what you deliver to the End User once they accept the invitation and show up on your mobile doorstep.

    Most QR campaigns and uses have been fairly poor. There’s a trail of failed campaigns already. They don’t lead to mobile-specific engagement (they rarely take into consideration when-and-where the user is likely to be engaged).

    How do people use their mobile devices?

    Short, text based conversations.

    Now, if your QR Tag can lead to that experience, you win. If you deliver someone a 2 minute video when they are on 5th Ave in Midtown, you lose.

    • ducttape

      I don’t disagree with this at all, but I would say you can expand the thinking when it comes to something like exchanging contact details or presenting a buy link for a single item.

      The end user experience will dictate in the end, but that doesn’t always mean that it can’t be purely transactional.

      • Guest22

        I get the “ease” that’s offered via exchanging contact details.

        But, what’s being lost in the process?

        A business card exudes a certain personality and emotion. Turn all business cards into black/white abstract images that mean nothing until “translated” via QR Reader?

        We lose the immediacy of the contact. We lost what form, texture, design and even color convey.

        OK, I’m an old guy. But, I’d rather be handed a business card on some interesting paper stock with a design that tells me something about the Company. It’s creates a memorable association. Then, I’ll just type in the data to my address book myself (good thing I type fast).

        • ducttape

          I don’t know why these have to be mutually exclusive ideas, why can’t you have all you describe and a QR code for ease of input the data?

          • Guest22

            QR Tags take up a lot of real estate right now. Until auto-focus cameras are the norm, we’re stuck at 1/25″ squares with another .25 border.

            If they are 10% or less of the total weight of text/design, then they have their place, if they are 50%, they “weigh more heavily” on an emotional scale and detract from other design elements. Also, if you are using them on a business card, depending on the sheer volume of data you are including in the code, 1.25″ may be small, as you have a denser code to work with and fewer readers resolve them well (or, poor cameras and less than optimal readers).

            There is a time and place for them. But, “everywhere” will result in people ignoring them (like banner ads). If each engagement takes about 2 minutes, that’s a lot of time to ask of people. You’d better give them something for it in return.

  • barbarareed

    I can see QR codes used to invite people to engage with a product or service in a trade show environment. Does anyone have experience with this?

  • Tragena

    I love this. The business card idea is genius. Only thing is I like both options. The add to contacts and the web link. Ha, I’m gonna be split testing business cards now.

  • Eric Pratum

    I continue to believe QR codes are the new CueCat. Using a QR code introduces a new step into the information finding process, and I believe that many people do not wish to take that step. Even for those that do, there is a question of whether or not they have a phone that can support QR codes. They may be everywhere, but truthfully, I don’t think they’ll stick around.

    • ducttape

      I’ll debate you on that one and part of the reason is that they are huge already in other part of the world. People in the US didn’t use SMS at all just 5 years ago and now they do more than phone. While it’s still early from an adoption standpoint smartphones are going to ship with this function as plumbing and people won’t call them QR codes they will just become information and shopping tools.

      • Eric Pratum

        I have no doubt that some phones will ship with this as a built-in function, and if it gains wider acceptance in the US, nearly all phones will. I just don’t see users clamoring for this. I have clients that have made successful use of it, but the impact thus far has been low, and the interaction rates have been not significantly higher than other channels…to this point. Now, if it gains wider acceptance, that will certainly change. I’m just bearish on this technology, I guess.

      • Guest22

        They are huge “already” in other parts of the World, but, they came into popularity based on different cultural and technological circumstances. Apples. Oranges.

        Noting, today, Google already threw down a very quiet gauntlet on their Blog re: Goggles, stating “No QR, no downloads.”

        Short term? If someone creates a campaign with QR that exceeds 1 million scans (the equivalent of the first viral video on YouTube), sure, there will be some life to them. If people get great value and experiences from them, they’ll last into the long-term. But, if we keep seeing half-baked (being kind) campaigns and the Juggernaut of GOOGLE is looming and taking aim? They’ll be a dead technology before they ever become popular in the States.

        I’d welcome a debate on the topic. I’m actually a proponent of QR, but, if we all act like BLOCKBUSTER video did with the advent of online and kiosks, we’ll die.

  • Jonathan Saar

    Thanks John for the list of resources. QR Codes were covered at Multifamily Brainstorming Conference and at Optimization Summits this month. This is something relatively new that property management companies are starting to use on their print material. Thanks for info..I shared it on my FB page. Have a good day.

  • Kelly Marsh

    I have seen these codes starting to show up everywhere but I haven’t noticed people actually using them. Sometimes people adopt new technologies a little too early for their own good.

    • ducttape

      Cart and horse classic I guess – you’ve got to start adopting some things in order to train customers that it might be good for them. Some catch on, some don’t. I started blogging in 2002 and I can’t tell you how many people told me it was a fad, stupid, or worse. Turned out to be the most important choice in my business life, so . . . we shall see.

  • Hilbrand Bouwkamp

    The zxing project has a very extensive QR code generator that can among others create business cards easier than the tool mentioned in the article:
    (It’s the project behind, among others, the android QR code reader app)

  • S22s

    Fantastic article! Have you tried a Microsoft Tag? – they are much more reliable IMO. I also like how you can always change the contest, see analytics and heat maps.

    • ducttape

      Not tried it, but thanks for the add – looks interesting.

  • Website Optimization

    One application is adding a QR code to your business card so someone can just scan the code and save your contact info to their phone. I’ve read they’re starting to pop up on TV ads too!

  • Bob Strassel Jr.

    I am using QR codes on my event posters for an event in November. Will be a nice test / benchmark for all my future events utilizing QR Codes.

  • Chris

    Great article, one word of caution to prospective business users, if you use a QR to link to your web site make sure you take a look at how your web site appears on a number of cell phones, if it is not a good experience then your wow factor will be lost. Within 3 years more people will access the internet from their cell phone than from a PC, now is the time to build your mobile web site and then use a QR to create some buzz.

  • Avivo

    If you want to create vector QR codes beside bitmap QR codes you can do this using free online tool at: You can choose between various data types, we support also geolocation.