Perhaps you’ve noticed those funny looking bar codes on products or magazine ads.  They’re square, and look like a mini printed circuit board.  When they are scanned by a mobile device, users are directed to more content such as messages, websites, or videos.  Their purpose is to give people passing by additional information.  They can be used for providing background information, advertising, and even fundraising.

Although they’ve been used in the manufacturing industry for almost 2 decades, these little guys are quickly catching on as a great way for marketers to connect with prospects and customers. Called Quick Response, or QR codes, they have been extremely popular in Japan and are only now making their way into the American mainstream.

Here’s a classic example of how they work.  Suppose you run an art gallery.  Next to each piece of art, you have a label with the name of the work, the artist, and a QR code.  Anyone with a Smartphone (and a QR code-reading app) can read the code with their phone and immediately be connected to a website with background information on the artist, video of the artist creating the piece, or an interview with the artist explaining their inspiration for the piece.

With the growing rise in mobile smartphones, marketers for both small and large companies are taking notice of this opportunity to communicate with their audience.  (The Nielsen Company noted that 30% of cell phones are now smartphones, such as Blackberry, Droid, and iPhones.  And, Deloitte’s “Technology, Media & Telecommunications Predictions 2011″ is forecasting 46% of global PC and non-PC computing device expenditures will be for smartphones.  That’s slightly more than they predict will be spent on PCs and laptops combined.)  The use of QR codes for social scanning is expected to grow right along with this trend.  One of the biggest obstacles for this application is consumer awareness.  But, I suspect that by the end of this year that will have changed.

So how can you use QR codes? Here are a few ways they can be used:

  • On your print advertising such as ads, direct mail, brochures, or informational packages.
  • To offer a special promotion or scan the QR code for a discount
  • On your business card.  Marketers have always wished that business cards could hold more information.  Now they can!  A QR code can link your card to your resume, your website’s services page, or LinkedIn profile.
  • On Point-of-Sale product displays.  QR codes can be used with high-end items, such as cars (linking to a video of the car performing on a racetrack), jewelry (with close-up views of the gemstone) or home theaters (with product specs).  But I can also see them being used with everyday items, such as clothing (fabric, laundering, or product details), fast food (nutrition analysis) and makeup (how to apply).
  • On promotional items. Speaking of clothing, you can put QR codes on mugs, hats, and t-shirts to promote your business.
  • For Eco-friendly products.  Give consumers more information related to how your product is saving the planet.  Showcase your production methods, statistics, or video of the difference your product is making.
  • With assembly instructions.  It would have been nice to have video instructions for how to assemble that grill we bought last summer, in addition the 20 pages of print instructions!  With a QR code, there’s no cost because you don’t need to produce a DVD!
  • In your newsletter.  Include a QR code to launch to a page that gives you additional resources, articles or how-to’s.
  • On for sale signs. Real estate agents can put a QR code on their “for sale” sign to launch a virtual tour
  • For bonus material.  Offer special bonus materials in videos, games, memberships, CDs or DVDs
  • For how-to’s. A QR code on scrapbooking paper, cutters, etc. would be ideal for sharing project ideas.
  • For non-profits.  A QR code at an event or on a brochure or pledge card could offer more information about the cause’s good work.  Recipients could also scan the codes to either donate or volunteer.

I’m sure you can think of other ways to use them!  It seems like the possibilities are only limited by imagination.

By the way, be aware that like most technologies, there are a couple of “standards” out there.  QR codes were developed in Japan and are used extensively there.  But in the US, there is a move to adopt ScanLife EZcodes.  The ScanLife code reader app can be downloaded to your Smartphone by texting “SCAN” to 43588.

Get ready, now that you know what they are, I’ll bet you see these little guys popping up all over the place!