I have a love-hate relationship with QR (quick response) codes. These boxy symbols--which you see lurking about in stores and publications and on product packaging, business cards, ticket stubs, direct mail--function as a kind of bar code on steroids, allowing people who read them with a smartphone app to visit websites, access discounts or otherwise engage with a brand.
Here's an example of why I hate them: The other night I picked up a pizza at a local restaurant. There was a QR code on the box, and when I scanned it with my iPhone, it opened a web page that gave me "the opportunity" to join the restaurant's e-mail list. There were two problems with that. First, the page gave me no incentive to hand over my personal information, other than a vague reference to possible "specials." (Really? I thought. What's in it for me?) Second, the page had about 10 minuscule fields to complete (my e-mail, full name, address, etc.). Have you ever tried to fill out a form like that on an iPhone? Even if I had wanted to give them my information, they made it difficult. Why make your customer work so hard?
You may have seen other silly efforts. Recently, a code I scanned on an in-store poster linked to the homepage of (doh!) a non-mobile-friendly site. Bad placement abounds, too: Have you noticed QR codes on billboards or the backs of shampoo bottles? Unless you pull over on the expressway or shower with your device, this is far from optimal.
Examples like these are why the QR code has become the poster child of potentially tremendous lead-gen tools that are sadly underused, or used in weirdly ineffective ways.
Which is a crying shame. Because here's what I love about QR codes: They spell fun and opportunity and can be a compelling way to attract and retain customers. The codes are designed to connect easily with customers on the go (the quick part of QR) and encourage their engagement (the response part). At their best, QR codes can bridge the online and offline worlds and enrich your lead-gen efforts.
But only if--like so many things in life--you use them right. Here's how.
Focus on user experience.
Over the next decade, the mobile web will become a major conduit for relationships with your customers. The key for businesses? Make sure your mobile efforts are purposeful and relevant in order to better attract new customers and service those you already have.
"Mobile-friendly is less about the technology and more about the user experience," says Tim Hayden, chief marketing officer at 44Doors, which advises businesses on mobile strategy. In a practical sense, this means that brevity rules--in terms of speedy load time of the QR code's landing page, registration that's easy to scan and complete and a relevant offer.
Know your audience.
Some 14 million U.S. consumers--or 6.2 percent of the total mobile audience--scanned a QR or bar code on their mobile device in June 2011, according to comScore MobiLens. That sounds like a tiny portion of mobile users, right? But consider this: Nearly 40 percent of consumers ages 25 to 34 have scanned a QR code, and one out of three consumers who have scanned a QR code have a household income of at least $100,000, according to comScore.
If you already target a digitally savvy demographic, you might not need to provide instructions on how to access a QR code. But it helps to spell it out: Tell potential customers what the code is and how they can read it, and suggest an app or two they can use for that purpose. "Prepare to do some hand-holding," Hayden says.
Have a point.
As with any of your marketing efforts, be sure to have crystal-clear objectives. Is your goal to generate leads for your products or services? Do you want to grow your database or find subscribers for your blog? Figure out ways to use the code to entice prospects to do exactly what you want them to do.
Offer awesome; deliver value.
Make sure that whatever you deliver via the code is valuable to your would-be prospect. If you are a retailer, for example, you might offer a coupon or VIP treatment in exchange for some basic sign-up information. A coffee shop might offer a free MP3 download. A real estate company might offer an inside peek at a property. A direct-mail piece might invite the reader to scan a code to watch a companion video or to access "the rest of the story."
Whatever you do, Hayden says, be sure to "frame the offer contextually." Don't just point to a website--think of the QR code as a step in the customer's journey. In other words, treat the code not as a passive entry to your site but as a call to action that might entice a prospect to sign up or otherwise get more involved with your content, your offers or your company.
Keep it simple.
As evidenced by my experience with the pizza box, make sure you aren't asking too much of your prospects. Deliver an easy, frictionless experience. Consider where your codes will be scanned, and put yourself in the shoes of the consumer--standing right there in the grocery store aisle, in an elevator or hotel lobby, at their mailbox. Would your offer excite you, as a consumer? Be honest.
It's clear mobile will change everything. By 2015, more people in the U.S. will access the web through mobile devices than through PCs, according to International Data Corporation. So the question is: What are you doing to take advantage of that momentum?
The ABCs of QR
QR codes, originally designed for the automotive industry as a way to track parts, are two-dimensional matrix bar codes that can hold a trunk load of alphanumeric or binary data. By scanning a QR code with a smartphone, you can access digital content on the web (among other things).
Create QR codes by using a free QR code generator. With these services, the user simply pastes in a URL, shortens it and adds .qr to create the code. Scanning the code with any QR reader will bring the user to the corresponding website. Popular code generators can be found at bitly.com, Goo.gl, qrcode.kaywa.com and KeremErkan.net.
Finally, to access the codes, you (and your customers) will need a QR code reader app on a smartphone, such as those by ScanLife, RedLaser, i-nigma, QuickMark, QR Scanner and ShopSavvy.