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SEE OUR COMPUTER GLOSSARY!!

NOTE:  Items highlighted in RED are defined elsewhere in this Glossary, while items highlighted in BLUE are site links for further information.

WHAT’S A QR OR A TAG? HOW DOES IT WORK?

A QR code is a matrix code or a  two-dimensional (“2D”) bar code, as opposed to the standard one dimension bar code, like the ones you see in your supermarket.  It is also known in advertising as a “mobile tag” or just a “tag”.  Information is encoded horizontally and vertically in a “matrix” which stores exponentially more information per square unit than simple one-dimensional bar codes.  [Compliant with ISO Standard 18004, it can store up to 4296  (alphanumeric) characters (about 750 words) vs. 20 characters for a bar code and is the same all over the world].  Also, they’re highly resistant to errors and can consequently be read from any orientation.  QR stands for “quick response,” allowing higher speed decoding than standard one dimensional bar codes, and are used more commonly in Japan, but increasingly in the U.S.  They were originally used for tracking parts in vehicle manufacturing, pharma deliveries and the like.  Now they are used to request information or content from a web site like details of a promotion, perhaps a discount voucher or to activate a download like a ring tone or video.  Because of their increased data density, they’ve also be used for book reviews, tests, recordings and the like.  A Japanese company (Ishinokoe) even offers tombstones with QR codes.

There are several developers of QR codes.  The two major ones are:  DataMatrix  (also sometimes called “Semacode”), a type of 2D barcode which, like the QR barcode, is a format available as an open standard, so that programmers can develop 2D barcodes for advertising and other “campaigns”.  Data Matrix was designed in 1989 and standardized by many organizations such as NASA, DoD and major electronics industries. QR itself was later created by Japanese corporation Densowave in 1994 (and embodied in ISO/IEC 18004) to encode URLs for websites (advertising), so that they can be read by cellphones with special scanners.  DataMatrix can encode up to 2235 alphanumeric characters or 1556 binary characters, while QR code encodes up to 4296 alphanumeric or 2953 binary characters.  So Semacodes can be printed smaller and can store more information than QR codes of the same size.

For free cell phone QR reader downloads, see the websites www.gettag.mobi (for the Microsoft download) or www.i-nigma.mobiBlackberries can use the built-in feature in the latest version of Blackberry Messenger.  Other phones, such as the Droid, have built-in QR readers.  For QR generators, check out MyQR.co/ and invx.com and RedLaser.com. 

The QR Code for the Computer Coach website would look like this (you can try scanning this; if read correctly, it will take you to the home page of this website). Notice the four squares in the code - the scanner detects the existence of the code by those squares, then “reads” the horizontal and vertical alignment lines that alternate black and white:

 

Elements of a QR code:

Example of QR in advertising:

Some tags are created in color, and even with a logo, made possible with the information redundancy based on the “Reed-Soloman Error Correction” technique:

Macy's QR
qr logo color
QR MimiCooper

The Microsoft QR code (second from right) is comprised of triangles vs the standard 2d barcode with squares (third from right); logos and images are shown on the codes at each end, above.

SO, WHAT’S THE POINT? WHY BOTHER?

Promotion technology is always evolving.  In a continuing effort to increase promotion and provide ease of access to information by consumers, many advertisers are turning to the web for an increased and constant presence.  [For more discussion, see Internet Marketing.] Just as Twitter, FaceBook and websites provide customer awareness and service on a 24x7x365 basis, another element of the promotion plan can include mobile phone tags to direct customer business whether or not you are open or available at that moment.  Luckily for businesses, the cost is virtually free and the learning curve is not particularly difficult for someone who is computer literate.

As an advertising medium, tags are immensely versatile.  The benefits of these tags are that they are small (they can be embedded almost anywhere - print advertising, vehicles (car and truck wraps, public transportation such as cabs and busses), websites (possibly as a page link), signs (e.g. real estate listings, business windows, bus stops, projected onto the sides of buildings), they work with a cell phone (you don’t have to have a computer available) and they are completely customizable.  That is, your tag(s) can connect to any page on your web site (or any other web site, for that matter), or only to a specific coupon or promotion, show you a video or give you a short virtual tour, even auto-dial a phone number or create an e-mail or text (SMS) message for you (by converting URLs, e-mail addresses or phone numbers into barcodes).  Tags are well suited for “upselling,” that is, using the tactic of piggybacking additional complementary items, special promotions not advertised elsewhere, or enticing customers to opt for the next most expensive model, brand or version.  Tags can create a vCard and print it on your business card for distribution, or (on the flip side) hide information from non-tech savvy people that you don’t want to share with them just yet.  Basically, tags can be used to link any real-world physical object to an Internet object.

Transit has shown particular promise recently, due to the captive audience. 
For example, in Albany, NY, Lamar Advertising, one of the country’s largest outdoor advertising businesses, blanketed the city transit system with QR codes where passengers were connected to a site where they could register for a contest to win an iPad.  In Denver’s International Airport, Colorado-based FirstBank offered a free download of an e-book to passengers.  Clear Channel Outdoor offers free crosswords and free Sudoku games for waiting Phoenix Airport passengers.Delta and other airlines are starting to use the QR for boarding passes.

There have been many other creative uses so far: The animated movie “9“ was promoted with only a large QR code that took users to a special trailer; NYC launched a QR campaign in Times Square linking to Notify NYC, the city’s official source of emergency events and services; coupons through QR codes are rapidly gaining ground; QR codes on posters and Tweets for album releases and rock concerts have been successful as well; Macy’s began embedding QR codes inside it’s trademark star logos which, when scanned, directed customers to special “Back Stage Passes” offering customers links to behind the scene videos of various star designers like Martha Stewart.  In one week in February 2011 alone there were an estimated 20,000 QR downloads at Macys.  And it continues.  Mercedes-Benz has joined with Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club (Germany’s equivalent of the AAA), to use a QR code placed on stickers inside the fuel filler door and the pillar ahead of the passenger side (two least often damaged places in crashes) containing essential information for first responders to accidents, such as placement and volatility of fuel lines, pressure cylinders, high voltage cables and the like that will give paramedics, police and firefighters a “map” of the vehicle.  

According to CNN, smartphones have reached the “tipping point” where they account for more than half of cell phones in the U.S.  And 32% of respondents to a survey in February, 2011 said that they have scanned a QR code.  Of those, 53% said they used the code to get a coupon or discount and 72% said they were more likely to remember an advertisement with a QR code.  Combine this with the success of Internet companies like Groupon, which provides coupons and promotes deals over smartphones, and it is becoming evident that a new type of marketing is rapidly emerging.

THEN WHAT’S THE DOWN SIDE?

First, you probably should have to have some technology presence, such as a web site, to deliver the message when the QR connects.  If you don’t, maybe now is an excellent time to consider modifying your marketing plan to bring it up to date.  That is, if you have a business that would benefit from this type of marketing.

Second, based on my experimentation with these codes and several smart phones and cell phones, I find that cell phone technology hasn’t yet developed to the point that it will effortlessly and consistently read QR codes.  Different phones and different software do make a material difference.  For example, many older cell phones and even smart phones (like the Blackberry) don’t have auto-focus built into many of their cameras, so they can’t take a clear photo of the code on a page sufficient to connect to the destination. 

Also, it takes a little work, getting the image clear and capturing it to the phone.  Shiny paper and bent magazine covers don’t make it easier, either.  And you must hold the phone steady, which isn’t always possible (e.g. if you’re in a car or on a subway train)  The readers don’t always work well with far-away billboards or in low lighting, and require cellular service (which might be spotty in subways, for example). Scanning from a computer screen is possible, but it’s not really the purpose of the code, because you could just go directly to the web page on your computer. 

Then there’s the code reader problem:  You may have to download a smart phone app (although the new iPhone will have a built-in app named Passbook), and not every code reader works with every phone, so you may have to experiment with several until you find one that works correctly.  Moreover, you may need one app for Microsoft QR codes, for example, and another separate app for other QR codes. 

Finally, some ad agencies have reported “QR Code Fatigue” in the sense that not that many people are inclined to use the medium, especially when all they reach is the advertiser’s corporate web site.  Apparently, many companies are not as creative as those ideas discussed above.  

This is the exact same problem currently being experienced with cell phone users attempting to photo and deposit checks over the Internet - USAA, for example, reports that no more than 60% of the checks go through on the first attempt, with many deposits taking more than one attempt, and some never getting through at all. 

Surely, though, technology will become better quite soon, and the experience will become more effortless.

Finally, just as with websites, you have to provide an engaging customer experience when the customer arrives at the QR destination.  A ho-hum page or defects in sound or video will put customers off and possibly even hurt future business just as much as a positive creative experience will keep them coming back.  But advertising has always been that way:  Even in the plain old print days, an ad that contained typos or was unclear ran the risk that consumers might not respond well.  It’s no different with the new media, it still has to be perfect.

For more about what you can use a QR code for in your daily activities, click HERE for a link to “Five awesome QR code tricks” by Rob Lightner.  He shows how WiFi Joiner let’s you create a QR that embeds access info for your wireless network, get reminders when you leave your house through Google Tasks and other good ideas.

And try making your own Semacode or QR code:  Click HERE for a free link.

 

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