I want to share an interesting fact with you. Compression of data is no new thing.  In the 19th Century sending a message was an expensive business, so they developed data compression as a tax dodge. ( no really… read on)  Our forefathers had some early networks. Sneaker nets that crossed the UK via stage coach ( technically I guess it should be “breech-boot-and-horseshoe-net,” but that would never catch on… and I’m 200 years late!)

A 19th Century Crossed Letter

A 19th Century Crossed Letter Example

[19th Century crossed letter example]

The network wasn’t very fast, took days, and was ‘verily expensive’ due to both corruption in the ad-hoc postal network and government-imposed charges set up to finance successive wars with America and France. To make matters worse, it was the recipient of the letter that paid for the service.  Since the fees were based on the size, the number of pages and the distance the letter had travelled, letter writers began to compress their messages.  Cross letter writing was developed. Nothing angry was involved…. The writer simply wrote the letter to fill the page and then turned the page by 90 degrees and began writing new lines to fill the page again. Genius! What better way to give the recipient more value for money?

Fast forward 200 years and we are still compressing data. Tax avoidance isn’t the driving factor, but time is today’s currency of commerce. Bar codes have been in use for years as a great way to quickly grab product details.  Your standard bar code, which is quickly read, can only contain numerical data on a horizontal axis. So if you want your bar code to transfer more data, you need to make it longer.

Enter the 2D code, a system for compressing bar code data across the horizontal and vertical axis. Sound familiar? These 2D bar codes have evolved to convey a lot more data in a smaller space than their earlier one-dimensional cousins so loved by the supermarket checkout. There are a number of  2D code formats that have been developed but the QR code format is the most widely adopted and supported by the open source formats. As marketing is all about mass communication, choose another more proprietary format at your peril.

QR codes are a fantastic development. Created back in 1994,  the QR Code format can handle a whole heap of data types, such as numeric and alphabetic characters, Kanji, Kana, Hiragana, symbols, binary, and control codes. Up to 7,089 characters can be encoded in one symbol.  They can be read in any direction by the scanner at high speed. They also contain a level of error correction, allowing the code to be interpreted correctly if it is in any way damaged or dirty. ( handy if you are in a dusty warehouse or are reading the code with a poor quality phone camera from a distance for example). When you create the code you can control the level of error correction with options of between 7% and 30% of the image data missing, depending on the correction level you choose.  The codes are an open format and can be created by anyone without charge and the standards are internationally agreed and accepted. You can read more about QR codes at QRcode.com an excellent resource created by Denso Wave who created and own the format but allow its free use.

Are there any drawbacks to the QR code format?

The format sounds wonderful doesn’t it, but there are a couple of drawbacks. In order to store a lot of data in the code, the QR code’s dimensions grow.  The format is measured in modules ( the small squares it is built from) It allows for codes as small as 21 x 21 modules up to 177 x 177 modules  ( the maximum size allows for 4,296 alphanumeric characters if you are using  error correction) The error correction % if increased will reduce the amount of data you can store in the code. The other issue I would add is an aesthetic one.  The codes look quite ugly particularly if you create a large one. Make them too big and you risk your viewers thinking it’s a magic eye image. Amusing in store if you know their real use, but not a profitable use of your customers time. QR codes also have a retro 8-bit pixelated graphics quality about them, without the luxury of colour. You can tweak colours in them as long as the contrast is there for the reader to detect the pattern, but in my view, these rainbow affairs just don’t cut it on the cool stakes.

So we have a code system, and we can embed data in it. So what? Well, look at the name of the code for its key benefit.  QR code stands for Quick Response. Initially, retailers have leapt upon the whole barcode bandwagon to make reading product details and prices really really fast.  I’m just about old enough to remember shopping before the barcode revolution. Pre bar code, retailers relied on sticky price labels to input prices at the till, and there was no direct way to measure what stock had been sold from till records. It was painfully slow, with huge margins for input error that could be costly. Inputting prices in this way would be unthinkable in today’s retail environments…. or would they?

As you travel around, there is no shortage of advertisers and retailers making use of long URLs to direct customers to their online offerings. Attempts are made to make these as memorable as possible, but have you ever bothered to actually enter these long strings of letters into a mobile phone while you are out and about?  Much like the bar code, QR codes’ offer a quick solution whenever fast interaction is needed, you just need to start getting creative on how you could make use of this.

How widely is the QR code format being adopted and by who?

The evidence is starting to emerge on the explosive growth of QR code usage by smartphone users. The QR Codes rise to popularity in Japan is well documented but there is increasing evidence to support that its success there is being replicated in the US, and the rest of the world. The pattern of consumer adoption would appear to be following a similar route that SMS technology took. It was slow to take hold but once it got popular,  it revolutionized mobile communication.

Mobio Identity Systems, Inc, an international mobile payments and marketing company, released a fantastic piece of research on consumers usage and adoption of QR codes in North America.

What can the QR code format do?

They report on some encouraging trends throughout the last quarter of 2010

•    The majority of QR scanning is coming from individuals in the 35-44 years age bracket (25%).

•    Steady adoption is being seen amongst all age brackets between 18 and 54 years of age (84%).

•    Majority of QR scanners are females (64%), showing more interest than men in collecting information on products and services, entering contests, and making purchases using their Smartphone.

•    QR bar code scanning grew an impressive 1200% from July to December 2010.

•    62% of QR code scanners have scanned more than 1 bar code in the last 6 months of 2010.

•    QR scanning to receive information on a product or service is by far the most popular type,  accounting for 87% of the codes scanned.

QR Codes are still in the early-adopter phase accounting for only 5% of total QR scans. That said the evidence is there to show an impressive growth in mobile payments of this type. Payment scans have grown by an impressive 118% since July 2010.

Similar trends can be seen in some  QR code survey research conducted by MGH in  February 2011 via an online survey of 415 smartphone users in the US. Being a user survey rather than an actual analysis of network data, I think you can see a little aspiration of users in some of their overall answers, but I’ll include it as a link because I think it serves to add weight to my argument that users are on path to adopt the technology.

Of particular interest is their analysis of how many consumers have seen a QR code vs how many have used them. Of the 65% of the users who had seen the codes, just under half had used them ( 49%). 70% of those surveyed are intending to make use of the codes for the first time or would do so again if they had used them previously.

Once again, this survey showed that among women there is a greater interest in the technology with 51% of women indicating that they already use QR codes.

I also found the survey’s assessment of how consumers are viewing the codes of great interest. Consumers are primarily clocking them on products ( 56%) in magazines (46%) and on coupons (45%). Awareness of codes in newspapers was just 27%, with TV and outdoor advertisements clocking only 17% and 16% respectively. The key usages for the codes was again to get coupon or discount deals ( 53%) or to access information (52%). Interacting with social media properties through QR codes was taking a back seat together with making a purchase at 23%.


UK QR code awareness

There is a definite lack of research to help us better understand the state of UK consumer awareness of QR codes. A  recent survey of 1000 British teenagers conducted by youth research agency Dubit Research has widely been cited as highlighting a UK QR code awareness issue. This is very much a stand alone piece of research, and to quantify it you need to look a little deeper at other reports on consumer mobile usage.  I believe that Dubit’s research points to a growing awareness of QR codes among the teenage market in the UK.

You can read the full report on UK QR code usage among teenagers here and judge for yourself what Dubit are presenting.

A lot of online commentators have taken the research as proof that QR codes are not set to take off in the UK. So how did I come to the conclusion this report is good news for QR code usage and understanding…?

Firstly, since this is a stand alone piece of research, there is no scope for measuring the rapid growth and awareness of QR codes by the US studies I have cited.   I was quite encouraged to read in the research that of the 19 % of teens in the survey who have used software to read QR codes, 74% of them said it was worth doing.  Awareness of QR codes is clearly there in a significant number of UK youth with 33% of 11-18 year olds recognising QR codes enough to know what they are called. A technology used by 19% of the 11-18 year aged population has great potential. That’s 1 in every 5 of that age group, and it tallies with some of the other stats regularly bandied around…

In 2011, according to eMarketer there were approximately 13.9 million mobile internet users in the UK. With an approximate population of 61 million, that is 22%.  And 22% is not so far astray from the 19% of under 18 users making use of QR codes that Dubit cited.  What is interesting is the capacity for rapid growth.  Dubit can’t make any predictions for this, but we can draw conclusions from market forecasts for mobile internet growth in the UK.

Emarketer reported on a predicted growth to  17.3 million UK  mobile users in 2012 and 18.6 million in 2013 (Source: eMarketer, February 2011) and I think it quite likely to surmise that use of QR codes is likely to spread at a similar level. Mobile website usage growth can only drive the quality of mobile website content and design in a competitive market.  Since QR codes offer a cheap and effective way to access such content on the go, I would predict an increased interest in and use of QR code technology over the next 2 years.

Dubit’s research also throws up some interesting trends. The most desired application for teens was for receiving vouchers or exclusive content to their phone. Automatically ‘liking’ the brand on Facebook was the least attractive option closely followed by being taken to a brand’s web presence or Facebook page.  Interestingly both of these examples appeared below the option of receiving directions to the brand or store.  The opportunity to receive a ringtone or wallpaper, or view an advert or make the current advert interactive all ranked joint third for the desired application.

In terms of UK research into QR code consumer adoption, I’ve found very little else that is being discussed, and a real lack of meaningful data within the last 12 months. However, if previous trends are anything to go by, I think it highly likely that we may see a similar adoption curve this summer leading up until Christmas that North America experienced in 2010. If anyone has any other pointers to factual research on UK adoption of QR codes, please do share it with us.

QR codes Vs NFC tags

Much has been made of Google’s decision to remove the QR code option on their Places service. Many have speculated that Google are exploring other alternatives and are researching NFC ( Near field communications) tags as an option.  I think a bit too much is being made of this as evidence that it’s the beginning of the end for QR codes. The development of the electronic carving knife didn’t do away with the handheld variety. I wonder… if Google made it public that they intended to explore a new way of carving hot meat would industry pundits declare that knives no longer have a use anymore? ( ludicrous to suggest I know, but a digital equivalent of this argument relating to the death of QR codes is all over the web.)  NFC is quite a different beast to the QR code. NFC tags are not as easy to print as they require chip technology to be integrated as part of the tag. They also require phone hardware not yet widely available in handsets to be functional, but it is interesting that micro SD cards which can be used by an estimated 65% of current handsets have been developed which can enable the handsets to make payments, act as a loyalty card or download information from RFID tags embedded in smart posters.  There is also talk that the chips could be embedded into stickers, but I have yet to see it functioning. RFID technology does allow for greater and more secure data transfer, but at a cost. As a result of the hardware requirements at both ends, it could be some time before the technology allows for the same level of mass adoption that QR codes currently present. QR Codes are cheap, visible, easy to implement, in use, spreading rapidly and anyone can create one in a few seconds. The same cannot be said for NFC.

Google is reputed to be looking into how all mobile phones can be shipped with code reading software already on them,  which would be a great step forward, but for the moment it is a case of watching this space.  It is true that most mobile phones don’t ship with a QR code reader at present, but the free availability of the software makes it a far greater bet for early mass adoption. You need to rely on the user downloading additional software to read the code. But as we have seen there is plenty of evidence that consumers are doing just that.  What I find little evidence for is the availability of RFID enabled phones. In addition, the tech to power NFC is chip powered so the costs for using within a marketing campaign are far greater. With that in mind, you can see that NFC is never going to be an option to link the printed mass media with the online world. …I wonder what a newspaper might charge to embed a chip in your advert in every single copy of their publication?  …and good luck finding a chip that is embed-able in print run paper


A quick guide to using QR codes for marketing

Before you rush off in a fit of enthusiasm and start banging out codes to all your best online collateral,  we would like you to bear 4 key things in mind.

1)    Your customers will be accessing the resource you are linking to on a mobile device. Make sure the resource you direct them to is designed and optimised for mobile!

2)    Using a QR code, although quick, is still a hassle. Make sure you are adequately rewarding the customer for making the effort with something really really worthwhile. ( Like all businesses do with marketing communications right?

3) Keep the amount of data you encode as short as possible.

4) Educate your customers. Awareness is growing, but not everyone knows what these things are, or how they can benefit from them provide education on what you can do with the code, and really make sure there is a great benefit/user experience for those who make the effort. If you are looking for a list of code scanning software for multiple mobile devices you can find it here.

If you are looking for a code generator there are hundreds to choose from, but one of my favourites is delivr.com’s

Obviously, links to online resources for mobile users are a quick win but you can do a lot more with these little gems.  It’s possible to embed contact details into the codes. Want to make sure your customers can get in touch without having to input long telephone numbers and email addresses? – Why not embed a link to your contact details in a QR code so they can instantly zap them into their smart phones.

When choosing what to encode, the general advice is less is more.   Just because you can embed most of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy into a QR code doesn’t mean you should( but for the curious…. here’s what it would look like….just click on the QR graphic below :-).

[hamlets soliloquy qr code]

If you opt to use an url shortener then the amount of data that you transfer is kept to a minimum, meaning the QR code can be smaller. You also get the benefit of being able to track the responses to the QR code, since followed links are typically tracked by url shortening services.

If you are embedding actual web addresses, always make sure you include the full http:// part of the address. This should ensure for most devices that they recognise that type of information they are being given.

25 ways to harness the power of QR codes in your marketing…

There are so many things that you could try, and heaps of idea’s on line.  We have put together a few ideas below to get you thinking.

Usage for QR code promotions that use Url links:-
– Mobile optimised  supporting advertisement microsites
– Discount codes and coupons to redeem in store
-Referral devices to refer a friend for a time limited fab offer
– Video product demonstrations and endorsements
– Museum style info graphics for a point of interest
– Text, audio or video commentary to support a particular real world place.Stories add to brand engagement as all the best brand story tells know. Share more stories
– Product information
– Product comparisons
– Sweepstake competition entry
– customer questionnaires ( but please make it really enticing and worthwhile submitting)
– Mobile video enhancements
– customer testimonials on product benefits
-Social media engagement
-add to online wish list feature
-A google map of all your stores
– Sign up page for your email newsletter strongly featuring the benefits
-Wifi login to customers at your business location if you offer free Wifi access!
-Create a business card with a QR code that will digitally transfer your Contact Details into the scanners phone contacts database. (Read more about QR codes and Contact details)

-Create a grab-able event ( just link your QR code to a vCalendar document for a great save the date feature)

-Google Maps location…. not so useful in a retail environment, but great if I’m looking at a local advertisement and want to get to you in the real world. And don’t forget to keep updating your google maps business profile. With mobile users making such heavy use of the google map apps, summary’s and content on your maps profile are a key piece of marketing collateral.

– call me
Yes, the QR code can embed a telephone number. Perfect for Cab companies wanting to pick up easy after hours custom. Just print the code on the beer mat! Customer scans code, the phone connects the customer to your telephone centre. How easy is that? No more dialling the wrong number.

-link your print articles to RSS feeds or blogs

and finally…
>Paypal “Buy Now”  link
>Social Media links (Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, YouTube, etc.)

I have put these two at the bottom of the list with good reason. Recent research indicates that for mobile internet users, these are items are currently very low on their list of key link benefits when mobile browsing. ( Alleluia…. finally I have found something social web related that isn’t worth shouting about!)

I think the key thing to remember with this great marketing technology that  bridges the real world and online is that when out and about ( as we tend to be with our mobile phones, be it in public, or browsing casually through magazines and traditional media) we are continually distracted and really really short of attention. However you use these codes, make sure they are providing timely and targeted content of real value. If you are after more QR code inspiration check out the excellent resource 2d-code.co.uk which was one of the best sites for information on how marketers are making use of the QR code format.  As always we’d love to hear from any of you who have any additional suggestions or comments or resources. We’d also love to know if you have had success in using the technology for marketing campaigns. Please please join in and share.


Written by Ciaran Rogers
Target Internet