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Should You Incorporate QR Codes Into Your Communication Efforts?


Use a free QR code reader and
see where this leads you!

What is that thing – that black and white (and now sometimes colored) pattern of images arranged in a square pattern that seems to be cropping up everywhere from business cards, to magazine ads, to signs and billboards?

It's a QR - or "quick response" - code, one of the most recent communication innovations to be prompted by the rapid adoption of smart phones and mobile devices. While QR codes have actually been in use since the mid 1990's, their use in the U.S., and for marketing purposes, has been prompted by the proliferation of smartphone devices.

Created in Japan by Denso-Wave, a Toyota subsidiary back in 1994, the codes were originally designed to track car parts inventory. They work similarly to the barcodes that we're all used to seeing in retail settings. The codes contain digitized data that when scanned reveals text, URLs or visual data. Users can generate and print their own codes at a variety of websites (search for "QR code generator", for instance), and can read the codes by downloading free QR reader applications that work with the cameras on their smartphones.

Marketing Options
Elizabeth Lowe was an early adopter of the technology. Lowe has been the marketing coordinator at Brownstone Insurance, in Norwell, MA., since early 2010. She first spotted the code in a retail catalog and after some research and exploration decided it was something that Brownstone might benefit from.

Initially, she incorporated a QR code into Brownstone employees' email signatures. "We linked it to a fun little page on our web site that had some lesser known facts about the company," she says. The codes definitely generated attention—the month the code was introduced, that page was the most frequently visited on the company's web site.

"For professionals in the insurance industry, QR codes offer a great way to reach the growing number of consumers who rely on smartphones and tablets for almost every aspect of their lives," says Andrew Henkel, manager of corporate accounts at Johnson & Quin, Inc., an integrated marketing services provider. For example, "We've seen a car decal featuring a QR code that allows the driver to quickly scan it for an insurance agent's contact information." Or, he says, an insurance company could use a QR code in a direct mail piece to link a consumer's smartphone to Google maps and display the nearest company office.

Stephanie True Moss, founder and CEO of, points out that QR codes can also take people to a form or survey that they could fill out and submit on a website.

"They're a lot of fun," says Moss, who notes that QR codes are really "challenging the imaginations" of people in terms of the various ways they might be used.

Use a free QR code reader and
see where this leads you!

How to Use Them ... Effectively!
While there are many ways that QR codes could be used, there are also some ways they shouldn't be used, says Chris Sheehy, president of Sidewalk Branding Company, a Rhode Island-based inbound marketing firm. "My first QR code was targeted to my web site; it was the dumbest thing I could have done," he admits. Why? Because people are using smartphones to read these codes and web sites have not generally been built to display effectively in mobile formats.

Importantly, advises Sheehy, insurance professionals should think strategically about how QR codes might aid their communication efforts and tie to practical elements of their business. For example, he says, agents might have multiple sets of business cards designed for different audiences/purposes. The back of each set of cards might contain a QR code that takes the user to a place where they'll find information relevant to their specific needs.

Before printing the codes on anything, though, it's important to test them on various devices.

"Test it and test it again and have some other people test it before you ever print it," advises Moss. "Make sure it works on as many phones as you can and make sure it goes to where you want it to go."

Another key tip: "Consider offering brief user directions near the QR code for consumers unfamiliar with them," suggests Henkey.

Finally, says Lowe, "I wouldn't suggest that you use QR codes in all of your efforts." Why? 1) Not every consumer has a smart phone, and 2) Even those with smart phones may not yet be familiar with the codes and what they do.

But, adds Moss, it's an option that is likely to grow. "By the end of next year there will be 415 million people with iPhones," she notes. "If you want to turn your back on 415 million people, go right ahead."

Lin Grensing-Pophal has written on topics ranging from health and wellness, to careers and HR-related topics, to marketing and social media. Her most recent book, "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Strategic Planning" (Penguin), was released in spring 2011. Lin is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the Association of Health Care Journalists, and the Society of Professional Journalists.