Hip to Be Square

Hip to Be Square

Published in BusinessWest
June 21, 2011


Are QR Codes the Next Wave in Marketing?

The first time Lesley Lambert encountered QR codes was two years ago when the organizers of PodCamp Western Mass., an annual social-media and online-networking conference, put them on event T-shirts.
Specifically, the code on the T-shirt given to attendees directed them to a Web site where people uploaded all their media following the event, including videos, photos, and blog posts.

“After trying one out, I got to thinking, ‘hey, this has a lot of applications for my business,’ and I started playing with it using trial and error,” said Lambert, a Realtor with Park Square Realty in Westfield. “Now they’re popping up all over the place.”

A QR code (short for ‘quick response’) is a two-dimensional code that is readable by smartphones and other mobile devices. The code consists of black modules arranged in a square pattern on a white background. The information encoded may be text, a URL, or other data.

Lambert, who recently gave a presentation on the use of QR codes in real estate, says she now incorporates them on sign riders, “so when you’re driving by the house and want information that minute, you can scan the code and get information on the property. Or you can open up a virtual business card and save the information to your phone without having to type it. I can put it on flyers, postcards … it depends on what my goal is.”

Christine Pilch, a partner with Grow My Company and a social-media marketing strategist, recently wrote about QR codes on her blog at growmyco.com.

“Most people have probably seen them, but many still don’t know what they are,” she notes. Yet, “marketers are finding ever-greater ways to incorporate them into marketing by making it easier for a user to reach a particular page online. Let’s face it: it’s easier to scan a code than type a URL.”

She suggests a number of uses for QR codes in marketing — on business cards, for example. “Think about how many cards are handed out at events and trade shows,” she writes. “If yours contains a QR code, later on, when the user scans it, you might have an advantage over the rest of the business-card stack when the contact lands at your LinkedIn profile and sees your photo and complete skill set.”

QR codes can also be effectively used on printed product literature, within webinars and presentations, on promotional T-shirts, in a retail store (to access instant coupons), and in print advertisements. The latter, Pilch said, “is a great, easy way to get prospects to a particular Web page from within a print ad. I’ve seen them on billboards too, but I wouldn’t encourage you to do something that entices drivers to take their attention off their primary responsibility.”

Home Depot, Lambert noted, even uses QR codes on its plant containers. “So if you’re standing there and you like a plant but you’re not sure what to plant it with, you can scan the code, and it tells you what companion plants work with it, how to plant and take care of it … all those instructions are in your phone when you go home.”

This can be a particularly effective use of the technology, Pilch notes. “Think about how much greener it would be for people to read, for example, instructions for something they purchased by simply scanning a QR code on the product packaging rather than having to print and insert instructions within the packaging.”

Instant Information

Kelly Galanis, administrative fellow for Advancement and University Relations at Westfield State University, said her department has used QR codes on posters and postcards to promote events such as homecoming weekend. “It’s super easy; we can take that code and attach it everywhere.”

However, the technology is catching on slowly, particularly with the older set.

“I think the codes are here to say, but they’re still very new,” said Galanis, adding that she recently attended a retreat with the Mass. Board of Higher Education, where she spoke with women in their 40s and 50s who had only recently bought their first smartphone. “They’re still learning how to use the thing, let alone understand QR codes.”

College students, however, are latching onto the technology more quickly, even though not every student has a smartphone, and a good percentage of those who do have never really paid much attention to those funny-looking squares in the corner of many advertisements.
“We love them. They’re innovative,” Galanis said. “But you can’t send a postcard with only a QR code on it; you still need to print something.”

Still, those who have latched onto the QR wave have enjoyed the ease with which they can grab and store information without having to reach for a pen. “I think students are catching on more,” she added. “You’re seeing it for ads for concerts, things like that. So that’s been good.”
Like any new marketing tool, Pilch said, some people will use QR codes incorrectly. For example, many don’t consider that the Web page where someone will land after scanning a code should be optimized for mobile-device use. “Little will frustrate your users more than a busy page with lots of unnecessary images.”

She wrote about recently receiving two postcards with QR codes, each falling short in some way. One was a from a hospital promoting its birthing center; she scanned the code on the postcard and was taken to the hospital’s Facebook page, not a landing page specifically explaining why she was supposed to scan that QR code in the first place, or how to collect on a free offer described in the mailing.

Another postcard, promoting a seminar for nonprofits, included a QR code that took the user to a Web page that didn’t expand on the information already printed on the card, and also wasn’t optimized for mobile use. Pilch said the text was tiny, the registration button was barely visible, and when she clicked on it, she got a security warning saying the site’s certificate wasn’t from a trusted source, which didn’t give her much confidence to proceed.

“The moral of this story,” she writes, “is that, while it’s terrific to utilize new technology, traditional marketing principles still apply. You still need to drive people to a place where they can get the info they need. You still need a compelling offer to entice people to take action. You need to always make it easy for your prospects to do business with you. And, in this case, you must test, test, test … on every mobile platform.”

Scanning the Horizon

QR codes were created the mid-1990s in Japan, and are frequently used there and other Eastern countries, while the West has been slower to adopt the technology. But that’s definitely changing.

“I think it’s probably ahead of the curve right now, at least in Western Mass.,” Lambert said. “I know it’s taking off in more metropolitan areas, where more and more people are adopting them. And the more companies use them, the more consumers are going to be curious.”
She said she’s seen the codes used on everything from catalogs to store windows at Best Buy. “I even saw one on a wine bottle.”

With more and more people glued to their smartphones every waking moment, QR proponents say, it’s only a matter of time before the public embraces the technology on a wide scale. “The benefit to QR codes is you don’t have to type anything,” Lambert said. “Every smartphone has a free QR-reading app that you can download. Once you learn how to do it, it’s a much faster way of getting content than typing a URL. And it’s a fun new thing to try.”

And who knew something so square could be fun?

Joseph Bednar can be reached at bednar@businesswest.com

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