by Rik Barwick, Director, Creativitea*

Although you might not know what they are, QR codes (short for “Quick Response”) have actually been in circulation for years. America and Japan were amongst the earliest adopters of this technology, and the UK is now amongst the top 10 largest consumers of QR Codes in the world.

QR codes are 2D matrix barcodes that were originally designed for the automotive industry back in the 1990’s. Although they were initially designed to track automotive parts, they currently have many different uses, since they allow for a wide variety of content to be decoded very quickly.

But how does QR work? Basically, the QR code acts like a bookmark to the content that you want to deliver: no typing or messing about, consumers can just scan the QR code with the camera in their smartphone and away they go!

QR codes have already captured the attention of marketing managers around the world, since they will finally allow businesses to break the barrier between digital and offline marketing. Packed with such amazing power, it’s no surprise that QR scans have increased by 4549% between the first quarter of 2010 and the first quarter of 2011, according to a Mobio Identity Systems study.

However, that doesn’t mean that QR codes are suitable for every business. There will always be some companies that rush to be part of the latest trend as a way to make some fast cash — or just to look up-to-date and trendy — but that doesn’t exactly constitute a sound marketing strategy.

To integrate QR into your overall marketing strategy effectively, you’ll need to think very carefully about the experience that you’ll be offering to consumers. Without this level of forethought, you definitely won’t get the return on investment (RoI) that you’re hoping for.

To begin with, in order to use QR, consumers will first have to download a dedicated app (and there are countless available) for this purpose, since even the very latest mobile phones don’t have a native QR Reader installed as standard. For marketers, this is fantastic news. Why? Because it means that the marketing team now has easy access to a captive audience who already have QR on their radar — and who actively want to interact with their material.

However, this immediacy means that any QR content has to be thought through very carefully; there is nothing worse than scanning a QR code on a business card to just go through to the company’s website. Likewise, a simple link to a Facebook page is a total waste of time — unless consumers will find something special waiting for them when they arrive there.

Instead, why not use the QR code to upload all of the card’s contact details to the consumer’s address book automatically? Or perhaps to provide a bookmark to a mobile webpage, so that users can see this content whenever they choose to.

In any case, there has to be some incentive for users to scan a code: exclusive content, vouchers and/or freebies are all good examples, but that’s just the beginning. Look at what Tesco did with QR in Korea, for example. They covered a Tube station barrier with what looked like a typical shopping aisle — all labelled with individual QR codes. Passengers could wait for their train and order their groceries at the same time. Genius!

From a marketing perspective, it’s good practice to serve up this kind of ‘optimised’ material, but you should also consider other options as well. For example, what if someone wants to take advantage of a QR coupon or special offer, but they just have a basic phone with a poor camera and/or can’t download apps? No matter how exciting the latest technology might seem, it’s always important to offer various options so that you don’t alienate any potential customers.

Last but not least, be sure set up your QR codes so you can change them dynamically in your campaign, especially if they’re being used in packaging, as products have a longer life cycle than a lot of press ads! It’s also very important to be able to track them effectively as well, so that you can see at a glance what’s working and what isn’t.

Brands such as Calvin Klein and Condé Nast are already driving greater awareness of QR codes by placing them in their TV, print and online advertising. As a result, the popularity of QR codes will only continue to rise, and consumers will soon be seeing them just about everywhere: from product packaging to Tube posters, and from printed adverts to property For Sale signs.

This surge in popularity will bring QR to a whole new audience, and will therefore present many exciting opportunities for marketers. However, in order to bridge the gap between offline and online marketing successfully, you will need to plan your QR strategy very carefully, right from the start.