QR Codes 101 – What They Are and Why to Use Them

Apr 13th, 20116 Comments

You’ve probably seen these odd-looking squares on movie posters, magazine ads, direct mail ads, even business cards. They’re called QR codes.

What is a QR code?

A QR or Quick Response code is a two-dimensional barcode that can store more information than a standard barcode. So, for example, a QR code can store – drum roll – a web page (URL).

How to Care for Your OrchidFor example, this QR code came with an orchid I bought. When I scan the code with my smartphone, a video on “How to Care for your Orchid” pops up on my mobile. No more dead orchids for me!

How to scan a QR code

Depending on your phone, you might have to download a QR reader app to scan these codes.  (Newer phones come with QR reader apps already installed.)  To find a reader app for your phone, google “QR reader” and the model of your phone. For my iPhone 3Gs, I tried a few readers, including i-nigma, Qrafter and TapReader.  These all work just fine.  TapReader has been my go-to app for several months and it’s very easy to use, but I now prefer Qrafter because of its history and email features.  (The Qrafter ads get a little annoying, so it might be worth shelling out the $3 to get rid of them.)

Now you simply use the app to scan QR codes wherever you see them – on a receipt, on the side of a bus, on a poster, etc. It’s that easy!

QR code on grocery store receipt

Fun fact:  Notice the three square patterns on three corners of each QR code – these are the distinguishing marks of QR codes and are used for orientation.  They allow you to hold your phone sideways or upside down and your reader can still capture and interpret the information.

How to create a QR code

One very simple way to create a QR code is to use the free bitly URL shortener. In fact, any time you use bitly, it automatically creates a QR code for you.  This has been a bitly feature since October 2010, so you might already have QR codes lounging around in your bitly account that you aren’t even aware of.  To see your (or any) bitly QR code, just click on your bitly link’s InfoPage+ or append “.qrcode” to the link.

Example:  To simplify email list signup for one of our clients, we used bitly to create a QR code for her Join Our Mailing List webpage from Constant Contact.  Here’s how:

Using bitly to create a QR code for email newsletter signup

Step 1: Go to www.bitly.com. We recommend signing up for a free account so you can keep track of your bitly links. Find the (long) Join Our Mailing List link, which is automatically generated within a Constant Contact account to put on websites, Facebook fan pages, e-newsletters, etc.

Using bitly to generate a QR code for email newsletter signup
Step 2: After you plop the long link in the blue area, bitly automatically generates a shorter URL as well as a QR code. By clicking on “Info Page+” above, you can see both the QR code and the click-through analytics of your shortened link, as shown below.


When we click on the "Info Page+" in the second image, we see our analytics and our QR code.

Now back to our client, Cosmetology Educators of Texas.  When students are in one of their classrooms, they can automatically join Cedtx’s mailing list from their smartphones, instead of handwriting their information on a signup sheet.  This reduces errors and saves time because Cedtx staff no longer has to manually input this data.  To encourage this process, we made them a simple handout to explain QR codes to students.

Another popular free QR code generator is http://qrcode.kaywa.com/. We use this one when we need larger QR codes for storefront windows, for example. Kaywa also offers a paid fuller-featured version for heavier commercial use.  More and more companies are jumping on the QR code bandwagon and offering features and services to help organizations take advantage of this promising technology.

Branded QR code for Cedar Sage Marketing's website at www.cedarsage.comBranding your QR code

QR codes have some built-in error detection, so you can even add a logo to them.  Another client, Berry Austin Yogurt, wanted to publicize and encourage Yelp reviews, so we used Photoshop to create this for her storefront window.  QR code for Berry Austin Balcones Yelp page

For her point-of-sale area and interior, we created signup cards that had two QR codes, one for her coupon e-newsletter and one for her Facebook business fan page.

Note:  It’s good practice to test your branded QR code on a variety of reader apps before you send it off to the printer.

Yes, the landing page really should be mobile, but…

Ideally, a QR code should link to a landing page that is designed to display on a mobile device. Some of the QR codes I’ve seen actually are, but many are not.  Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good!  QR codes are still relatively new in the U.S. and are gaining in popularity.  Even if your desired URL is not mobile-enabled, we recommend using a QR code to promote your offerings if you think your customers would benefit.

QR codes marketing brainstorm

There are so many potential uses of QR codes.  Here are some ideas to get your creative juices flowing:

  • Professional service providers could encourage follow-up communication by placing their website or LinkedIn QR codes on their business cards.
  • Professionals who produce written reports or “leave-behinds” could link to a Slideshare or video presentation for more details.
  • Retail stores could encourage Yelp reviews by placing a QR code on receipts or in their store.
  • Restaurants/eateries could put nutritional information or video testimonials in their QR codes.
  • Companies that sell bigger ticket products or services can use QR codes to “close the information gap” by providing detailed specs or videos on use, installation, maintenance, etc.
  • Bands and musicians could promote their music videos by putting QR codes on t-shirts or other merchandise.
  • Event managers could make their events more interactive by using QR codes for maps, contests and post-event follow-up.
  • Real estate agents could use QR codes to attract buyers by showcasing home tours.

A great example of a non-profit using QR codes

Austin Pets Alive uses QR codes for their dog and cat kennel codesI love AustinPetsAlive, an NPO dedicated to making Austin a no-kill city.  They use QR codes on their kennel cards.

When a prospective parent sees a dog or cat they’re interested in, they can scan the kennel card to get more detailed info and also see an endearing video.

Jill Peterson of AustinPetsAlive says they are still optimizing their dog and cat pages for smartphones and that they hope to include a sponsorship form for donations for pets with special needs.

What’s next?

I think we’ll see QR codes more and more in the U.S..  They’re very popular in Japan, because they were invented by Toyota subsidiary Denso Wave as an inventory control tool. More importantly, the inventors have elected not to pursue a patent, which further encourages QR growth.  Other 2D bar codes do exist such as Datamatrix and Aztec, but they are not as widely used.  Microsoft too has a competing standard called MS Tags, but it currently is proprietary and requires the Microsoft Tag Reader.

Want to learn more? These are some great resources:

Question:  Where have you seen QR codes?  Do you give them a thumbs up or down?

- Suzanne Doughty
Cedar Sage Marketing