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Before You Use a QR Code...

Some say QR (short for Quick Response) codes are just a fad, and they’re bound to fail. As marketers scramble to find dozens of ways they can work these scannable barcodes into their materials with little research or thought (because they’re the cool-Web-thing-du-jour), they’re quickly giving QR codes negative attention to the public.

It’s not that QR codes will fail or have anything inherently wrong -- the problem is that they’re not being used effectively. Used properly, QR codes can act as effective tools for businesses and marketers.

Typically, marketing-focused, incentive-free content isn’t ideal for most QR code campaigns. It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, but a passively placed QR code on a billboard, for example, isn’t going to make a splash with potential customers. Why? In most settings, people aren’t going to stop what they’re doing, open up the camera (or download an app) their phone, scan a code, and consume content that ultimately isn’t valuable to them.

On the other hand, QR codes can be infinitely valuable to both businesses and consumers. Providing location-specific information (think bus stops) -- or making people’s lives easier by simplifying the process of entering data into a smartphone manually -- are areas where QR codes really shine.

If you do feel the need to use a QR code, there are a few best practices you should keep in mind.

Perhaps the most overlooked rule in many QR-based campaigns is to provide users with real value. You may want to drive users to a specific page on your website, but it’s important to first ask yourself why users will want to stop what they’re doing, pull out their smartphones, scan a code, and get information. Consider offering a special deal or coupon to customers who engage with you via QR code. Even if that’s impossible, make sure the content on the other end of the code is worth the wait. Never link to your homepage or a page without its value clearly communicated.

An often painfully-forgotten rule is to link to content that’s mobile-friendly. It sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s surprising how many QR codes land on pages with microscopic font with no real flow. Always -- always -- link to content that users can easily consume on their phones, and keep the information density as low as possible.

Before launching any campaign, use a shortened or tagged URL. Assigning your QR code to a link with an adjustable destination allows you to easily change your URL without the need to create a whole new code. It’s a heart-sinking feeling to realize the QR code you just sent to the printer needs to change, only to realize it’s too late to do anything. Don’t forget to tag your URL if you want to track QR-specific traffic to your site, too.

Speaking of URLs, web addresses shouldn’t be left out of your marketing materials as a way to connect with users. Include a URL as an alternative to your QR code for users who prefer (or cannot) use a QR scanner. Some of the biggest criticisms of QR codes are that not every phone is natively equipped with a QR reader, and that not every user is familiar with what QR codes exactly are. A URL alternative also can provide a bit of context around what content is hidden under the code.

Along with a supporting URL, explain the purpose of the QR code to viewers. Avoid sending users on a mystery mission into your website or elsewhere -- it’s a fast track to a bounce and a disengaged user -- instead, let people know what content they’re unlocking. There’s no better motivation to scan a code than explaining the benefits clearly. Without context, you run the risk of users not seeing the content you want if they won’t know if it’s worth visiting. (Also, you could look like the man on the bag of bagels...)

And never forget to ask yourself if a QR code is really appropriate for your campaign.

Good ideas:

  • Place a QR code behind a stack of brochures so users can download a digital brochure if the printed materials are gone.
  • Include a QR code next to menu items at a restaurant to find nutrition and other specific information.
  • Show a mobile-friendly video with a virtual home tour on a “For Sale” sign outside a house, accessible through a QR code.
  • Allow users to scan a QR code to get specific instructions on assembling or installing a product through video (take note, IKEA!)
  • Show time-sensitive arrival schedules at bus stations.

Bad ideas (courtesy of WTF QR Codes):