Using QR Codes to promote your business

BY SHARON STITELER | Contributing Editor

AS MORE PEOPLE START USING SMARTPHONES, they begin to rely on them for activities that used to require a personal computer: checking email, web browsing, driving directions, and yes, shopping. And as more people are using the Internet on-the-go, QR Codes are becoming an easy way for business to share links, discounts, and other information with their customers.

What are QR Codes?
A QR (Quick Response) Code is a kind of bar code, like you use in your store when you scan an item. But instead of just numbers (like a standard barcode), a QR Code can also store letters and special characters like slashes, @ symbols, and punctuation. Because of this, QR Codes can be used to share internet links, email addresses, contact information, sentences, or just about any information you like.

Where have I seen QR Codes?
Companies like FedEx and UPS use QR codes when scanning packages, because it allows them to store more information about the destination and handling instructions. You've probably also seen them in some advertisements as more and more businesses discover their usefulness.

Why do I care about QR Codes?
More and more smartphones (phones that have advanced computer functions, like the iPhone or Android), have the capability of scanning by using the cameraphone to snap a picture of the barcode. Customers are using them in grocery stores to look up nutritional information of their food, for example.

With QR Codes, you can quickly get information to your customer in a way that's simple for them. There's no typing of a long web address on a small phone screen. There's no "visit our store at www.ourgreatbirdstore.info and click on 'specials', then subscribe to find out what great deals we have this week!" With a QR Code on your signage, the customer can simply snap a picture and their smartphone will read the information for them in one step. It's easy.

How can I use QR Codes in my business?
Here's the great thing: you can create your own QR Codes for free! Simply search the web for "QR Code Generator" and you'll find lots of sites that generate the image for you. Then you can print your barcode, or if you're using it online, copy the code onto your website, or have your graphic designer or webmaster do it for you.

Next, choose the kind of information you want to share. Want people to visit you online? Make a QR Code with your web address? How about an advertisement with a special coupon code? Just write out the text or send them a link. How about your store's contact information, like address, email, or phone number? Got an upcoming sale or in-store event? You can create a calendar notification, too. Have some handy advice about the best placement for a birdfeeder? You could add a QR Code on a sticker that contains the text. All of these are possible.

QR Codes are all about putting information in a "machine readable" format. One clever use by a local business was to make it easier to get people to fill out surveys about their experience. When they offered paper surveys, the return rate was low, people didn't want to fill them out right there, and if they took them to fill out later, they forgot to do it or to mail it back. When they put the surveys online, people forgot the URL (which required them to go to the website, then find the link to the survey, then fill it out). If they sent an email with a link to the survey, people got annoyed.

So what they did was create a QR Code with a link to the survey online. Then the customer chose to take a picture of the URL, chose to visit the link, and chose to fill out a short survey online. An added bonus of this method is that because people were now filling out their surveys online, all the information was automatically stored in a spreadsheet, meaning that no one had to spend the time to transcribe the information from the paper sheets.

How do I read QR Codes?

If you've seen those little black and white boxes and want to check out how other companies (or your competition) are using them, then you need software that can read them. The easiest way to do that is with a smartphone, like an iPhone, Android, Blackberry or Windows phone. The phone will also need a camera so you can scan them in.

Next, search for a reader for your phone. On the iPhone, that's the App Store, Android Marketplace, Blackberry App World, etc. Just search for "QR Reader" and you should find several options for each.

You'll find several free options, but these can vary in quality. Of the three apps I tried for iPhone, two had a lot of trouble reading codes off computer screens and one crashed frequently. Then I found a third one that worked well. The reviews of other users will help you sort the wheat from the chaff. You'll also find some apps that you have to pay for. These apps usually have features the free ones may not (like the ability to generate QR Codes), and may be more stable, but if you're just dipping your toe in, I'd recommend finding a free app you like first.

Next, scan a QR Code! Some apps require you to take a picture of the barcode, and will analyze the picture for info. Others will use the camera like a scanner and detect the code on-the-fly.

And that's it. The software should show you the information (and not just, say, take you automatically to a website), and you can chose what to do with it.

In Conclusion
QR Codes are not a replacement for text in signage and ads, but they are a good way to get complex information (like web URLS and email addresses) into the hands of tech-savvy customers who have the money to spend on smartphones. And as the cost of smartphones comes down, it's estimated that many customers will choose to upgrade. If you have web-based information that you're frequently communicating to customers, QR Codes should be in your future.