By Katie McCaskey published November 1, 2010

QR Codes: 4 Tips to Release Content to the Wild

Where are the wild things? Not always on your website – which is why it’s important to release your online content into the wilds of the “real world” with mobile tagging.

What’s your tagging vehicle? QR codes! QR, shorthand for “quick response,” are bar codes applied to physical objects in the world and decoded quickly using a smart phone. QR code use is approaching a popular tipping point as more people adopt smart phones and discover the “hidden” rich media (website content, video, rss, etc.) embedded.

Bonus feature: response to your QR codes can be measured, too.

QR Code Use: A Case Study

George Bowers Grocery is a specialty food shop located outside downtown Staunton, VA (disclosure: I am part owner). The shop’s primary marketing and promotion relies heavily on social-media content and interaction. Customers are generally residential and live within walking distance. However, there were two untapped customer segments: tourists and students at local Mary Baldwin College.

We created a QR code that redirected to our website and another that allowed users to check in at FourSquare. The codes were distributed downtown, at the shop and via Facebook.

We added the words, “welcome to the future!” on a QR code poster in the shop. This prompted conversation and face-to-face customer engagement as we demonstrated downloading the relevant app and discovering the “hidden message” (an unexpected experience: having a “tech talk” with your grocery bagger!).

We achieved a 302% increase in mobile phone traffic to our website and a 25% increase in monthly check-ins using FourSquare. The latter was a smaller jump, which we feel is probably due to the reduced penetration of FourSquare users in a town of 25,000 compared to metro areas. We feel this effort resulted in greater overall awareness of the business from both target audiences…certainly worth the few minutes and virtually no-cost approach.

How to Create and Read QR Codes

QR codes are ridiculously easy to make.

QR Code Generator and Stickybits are two of several sites which allow you to create the codes for free. They also provide the free phone apps to read them. Other free apps that read QR codes include NeoReader, OptiScan and QR App. For just 99 cents, you can get QuickMark and scan virtually any bar code.

Incorporate your QR codes into all kinds of print marketing materials and collateral.

Depending on volume, you can print QR codes from your printer. No special printing inks or materials are necessary for a larger print run, either. If you’d like stickers with your QR code, just order them from Stickybits. Your code can live wherever you can stick it!

How to Customize a QR Code

Some visual customization to the QR Code is possible, too.

Manipulate the QR code using common photo editing software such as Photoshop or Gimp. Add a new layer with your design elements – you have roughly a 30% “fudge factor” to distort the code and retain its readability. This is a great way to tie your code to the look and feel of your marketing materials.

Here’s more detailed info on customizing a QR code.

QR Code Content

Since production is so easy the real question is: what kind of content will you produce and send out into the world with your QR code?

Embedding a QR code to link to a website is great because you can track mobile visits to the site and compare visits to overall mobile device usage. However, linking to a site isn’t the only thing you can do with a QR code.

How about video? Animation? An RSS-driven treasure hunt? Wearable art? Secret messages to your lover?

Creating content specifically for QR code use works best if the content is optimized for mobile viewing — i.e., few page downloads, plug-ins or other clutter.

Four Tips for Successful QR Code Implementation

Create specialty content just for your QR codes
Your QR code content can be as simple as a web page or as involved as a video animation. Using a QR code demonstrates an awareness of “cutting edge” mobile tagging technology (technically, QR codes have been around for awhile; what’s cutting edge is the sudden increase in people who can read them). The important thing is to reward users who go to the trouble of downloading the app with great content. This is particularly important if your market is unfamiliar with QR code use.

Customize your code’s design
You can tweak the appearance of your QR code to reference existing marketing material design. This adds credibility among customers already familiar with QR codes and wows those just learning about them. Test the code to ensure it retains its effectiveness.

Be prepared to track the codes
A simple way to track your QR code is to embed it with an otherwise hidden web page. Track traffic to this page using common analysis tools such as Google analytics.

Explain usage in copy and/or design
While QR codes are showing up everywhere (I’ve recently seen them on such diverse products as deodorant and imported cheese!), the common assumption is that they are just “boring bar codes.” If possible, add copy or design that explains the “bonus” material hidden in them for greatest engagement.

In short, QR codes are a fun way to get your content into the brick-and-mortar world. Start scanning!

Let me know questions or experiences you have had with QR codes in the comments below.

** QR Code created by Takashi Murakami for SET. Via Engadget.

Author: Katie McCaskey

Katie McCaskey is Content Director of SixEstate, a content marketing firm powered by professional journalists and editors in New York City. Connect on Google+ or follow her on Twitter @KatieMcCaskey.

Other posts by Katie McCaskey

  • Bonnie Cotier

    I did an experiment with QR codes at an event in Cambridge last week. The experiment involved ppt slide and sharing the experience. I wrote about it and published it yesterday. Twitter has been buzzing with QR codes today.

    One of my readers is making a quilt… Check it out

    • Katie McCaskey

      Cool, yes, QR codes are certainly gaining traction.

      Side note: I’m betting a baby quilt with a stitched QR pattern would be the perfect present for expectant “geek” parents… I’ll have to share that idea with my quilting friends.

  • Addison

    Don’t know about others, but your customized QR code example didn’t work =

    • Katie McCaskey

      Addison – great observation – reminds me of one more tip:

      QR code apps are very finicky when you try to read them online. This is due to the slant of your screen, resolution, lighting, angle, etc…

      So, QR codes are best used when posted out in the real world.

      Thanks for reading!

  • Greg Jordan

    Informative, well-written article. Good links to more info, too. Thanks!

    • Katie McCaskey

      Thanks, Greg!

  • Pat Strader

    Great intro for those wondering what to do with them, and always good to read about examples in the wild.

    More QR generators are building tracking right into the generator allowing to see how often, when and what device used to scan codes.

    • Katie McCaskey

      Pat, that’s very cool…wasn’t aware you could also track device usage.

  • Matt

    Fascinating! How did you use the QR code to link to allow a Foursquare check in? Is it just a link that opens the Foursquare app on the user’s mobile device?

    • Katie McCaskey

      We kept it simple and had the code redirect to FourSquare’s website. There are probably other ways to do it that would be more direct, but, we were just excited to get it out there.

  • Kolsson

    This article was extremely helpful in understanding the anatomy of a QR code and has given me ideas of potential event giveaways with embedded QR codes to promote customer engagement. Thanks!

  • daleberkebile

    Great article! This really give some good ideas on QR Codes. Over the last 6 months or so we too have been working with QR Codes and trying to figure out how to best get clients to understand what QR Codes are and how to best use them. This article helps with that.

    We just published an article about QR Codes this morning. Some of the comments are bringing up other great ideas on how to use QR Codes. This might be an interesting read for you and your readers. I hope you find it helpful

    • Katie McCaskey

      Thanks, Dale. A good point made on your forum is the caution against just redirecting to a web page (as my example above) – I fully agree. Creating custom content is more effective because it rewards your visitors for the effort and lends a certain “insider” feeling…which in turn affects engagement.

      • daleberkebile

        Katie, yeah I think this is where the true value is. This is a little more work, but the payoffs are huge as with any marketing efforts. The whole “insider” feeling is what would make all the difference and also start to create brand loyalty and great word of mouth. This all allows more more engagement which is what this stuff is all about right? Thanks again for the tips.

  • Anonymous

    Katie, what a marvelous and timely post as I’ve been seeing/reading about QR codes more and more.

    I’m ready to start experimenting. What do you recommend as a good QR code reader for an iPhone?


  • Yelena McManaman

    I’ve been seeing QR codes a lot lately and it seems to be the next big thing. I think it puts even more pressure on the businesses to come up with engaging content (or creatively reuse what they already have).

    • Katie McCaskey

      Yelena, agreed. I’m betting the pressure for engaging content will continue to grow in multiple formats…Buh-bye, “content mills”…audiences are too savvy.

  • valentin

    I really enjoyed this article Katie, thank you for the tips!

    • Katie McCaskey

      Appreciate it 🙂

  • Stephanie Molina

    Excellent article! I’ve printed it out to share with our staff. We’re working on incorporating QR Codes into this year’s Visitors Guide Magazine for our destination. I’m trying to explain the strategy to our team and it’s all new. This information will sure help answer a lot of questions! Thanks!

    • Katie McCaskey

      Thanks, Stephanie. I can imagine there would be a lot of uses for QR codes in that environment. Let me know what you guys do…

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  • J Jimenezsoto

    How do you track an existing QR code that was created without the analytics feature?

    • Katie McCaskey

      Hi J,

      All QR codes come with analytic features, either directly, or, indirectly. You can indirectly measure by reviewing the traffic and conversions of the website page embedded on the code. I would recommend creating a new code.

      Let me know what you discover.

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  • jblogg

    Once your up and running – the real work begins.  Dont over-think it – its a lot of work to take out your phone, take a picture, and potentially wait for 3g load times.
    5 tips that will enhance your campaigns here – I think I have a complimentary set of tips in an article I wrote:

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  • Clara

    Love the customized code. I think it will help some people take the leap and whip out that smart phone.

  • Rsiuta

    Where is the best place to “house” a video that will be used as the destination point for a QR code on a retail package?

  • Menno Bieringa

    QR code research is interesting which is why I’ve actually conducted a context test of my own on 30.000 visitors of a soccer event. 
    I did not customize my QR codes for I didn’t know it was that easy! Had I known I might have tried to make my QR codes extra compelling 🙂

    Anyway, the goal was to see the importance of context when presenting people with a QR code while the second goal was to promote a new application of mine.

    Although interesting, the results were depressing in the sense of the amount of traffic I got from the QR code.

    Details and pictures of my research are on my blog

    I hope this extra info serves someone.

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