A New Marketing Tool For Your Business — One That’s Printed Too!
- By Raegen Pietrucha
- May 01, 2012
Pardon me, but what is that thing?
That symbol, composed of black-and-white squares, is a quick response code — or QR code, for short. And though it may not look like much, it contains data that can take you from the image on this page, through your smartphone and on to a destination in cyberspace.
Unlike 1-D bar codes such as the familiar UPC symbol typically printed on packaging and used for tracking and identification purposes, 2-D bar codes like QR hold quite a bit more data and transfer that data through an image or pattern instead of spaced parallel lines — and they can do so on packaging materials, smartphones and even other types of dynamic screens such as TV sets, said Peter Excell, senior IEEE member as well as professor of communications and dean of the Institute for Arts, Science & Technology at Glyndwr University in Wales, U.K. Why would anyone want to put this square on a TV screen? Simple — because QR codes are most commonly used today for marketing products and services.
The best part: Bar code applications, which are typically free, let any business generate their very own QR codes, and companies don’t even need to invest in an expensive printer to create a functional one. “You can have some (QR codes) that are very coarse, that are very tolerant of low-quality printing,” Excell said. Why is this? Because the quality of smartphone cameras — which capture the codes — is constantly improving. QR codes were developed at a time when the average smartphone camera was between .7 and 1.3 megapixels, said Derek Ford, sales manager at Complete Inspection Systems; however, today, people typically have a 5-megapixel or higher camera that easily reads the codes.
The camera-equipped smartphone is indeed a QR code’s best friend. The camera knows how to use those big squares in the northeast, northwest and southwest corners to align the image properly so it can be transformed into readable binary code, Excell said, and the “smart” capabilities of the phone allow you to link up to the Internet, download a QR code application (if your phone isn’t already equipped with one) to translate the symbols and view the information its creator intended for you to see online. And in fact, it is the same device that has contributed to the popularity of the QR code over 1-D codes. “With everyone carrying around a camera, a 2-D code is actually easier for them to read than a 1-D code,” Ford indicated — especially since no one walks around carrying a laser scanner, the device typically used to read 1-D bar codes.
Many are posting their QR codes on print ads, windows, computers and catalogs, taking advantage of the fact that consumers are both increasingly mobile and equipped technologically. Unlike 1-D bar codes that have a data limit between 12 and 15 characters, a QR code can hold up to 1,024 characters, Ford said. And with each additional character, there is an increasing possibility for you as a businessperson to reach your customers with your message.
The most important application of QR code: to promote your business
QR codes were created in 1994 by Denso Wave, a subsidiary of Toyota, and used by automotive manufacturers to track vehicles, according to Borko Furht, author of “Handbook of Augmented Reality.” But while QR codes have existed for nearly 20 years, they really weren’t even on consumers’ radar (let alone popular) until the early 2000s — and mainly in Japan, due to the cameras and Internet connectivity the Japanese market had in its smartphone technology at that time, Ford said. This is also when the primary purpose for using QR shifted from tracking and identification to marketing and advertising. Noticing QR codes placed on street advertisements and in windows, Japanese consumers could simply take a shot of the square with a smartphone and be connected to a website or other location that would provide information or incentives like discounts to buy products, he indicated.
So why does it seem brand-new here in the U.S.? Mainly because eight to 10 years ago, our cellphone technology hadn’t yet allowed for Internet connectivity, or if it did, its display capabilities were subpar, Ford said, so the QR code has really only reached and been used in the U.S. the last two to four years. But now that QR codes have arrived here, American companies — like many others around the world — are using them to promote their businesses. “You’re frequently seeing them on advertisements … in the street, in magazines,” Excell said. “We see it now on the television, particularly in television programs for kids. They will flash up a QR code on the screen, and the kids can hold their smartphones up and read it and get additional information. We’ve had a researcher who has used it in mobile games kind of like a chess piece. Also, instead of having a manual, you can have a QR code, and you hold the phone up, and the QR code links you to the website, and you’ve got additional information on how to use a product.” With so many marketing applications, the opportunities to connect to more business prospects via QR codes are plentiful.
So will the planet be covered in QR codes someday?
When it comes to 2-D bar codes, several options are out there. Besides QR codes, there are Microsoft Tags, Data Matrix, Aztec Code, MaxiCode, etc. Microsoft Tags, for example, allows color to be incorporated into the design, but ironically, this is probably the reason it hasn’t taken off like QR, Excell said; color printing is more expensive and en masse would likely be cost-prohibitive. Data Matrix is a black-and-white code that can hold slightly more data than QR, Ford noted, but it’s easier for older smartphones with less advanced technology to scan the QR codes. Excell added that “QR codes are more tolerant of bad alignment because they’ve got those three large squares that help the alignment; the Data Matrix doesn’t have that, so it’s going to be less tolerant of misalignment of the reader and the product.”
Most likely the main reason for the QR’s current triumph over its competition, however, is the fact that it’s the most recognizable now out of all the 2-D codes in the marketplace today. “(With) a QR code, (if) you’ve seen a thousand of them, you’ve seen five of them, and you know what they are, so it can be a psychological prompt to go and scan, because you know what you’re looking at is additional marketing information on the product,” Ford said. “Other kinds of codes might not necessarily trigger the same response in a person that’s looking at it.”
Still, there are a couple downsides to QR codes. “It’s not necessarily the best-looking thing in the world — especially to a very brand-conscious company,” Ford said. “Designing a product packaging to look good with a (QR) code on it is not incredibly easy, … and you’re limited to basically black and white because you need to have certain reflective properties. You can’t make shiny gold codes because … the phone won’t be able to recognize that when it’s looking at it.” Both Ford and Excell noted that the amount of data companies may want to put into the code can also prove to be problematic with QR, as a lot of space can be wasted on the control points that help the smartphone camera read it. “I think the biggest challenge is the pressure from the users to put more and more data in, which will inevitably lead to finer and finer detail in the QR codes, requiring more and more precise printing” and subsequently, higher-caliber cameras, Excell said. As it stands, putting large amounts of data into a QR code would result in it growing exponentially. “If you’re trying to put 1,024 KB in a 2-D code, that’s definitely possible, but the QR code would be the size of your desk,” Ford indicated. “They don’t hold a lot of data, so if you want to have a lot of data in there, they have to be huge, and as a result, they’re even more unattractive.”
The desire to cram as much information into as tiny a code as possible opens the door to future competitors not only undercutting QR for marketing purposes, but also widening the use of 2-D code for other purposes. “You can very easily now design a kind of code with a lot more information in it, with a lot more density,” Ford said, “so it can potentially be much more useful not only for marketing, but for track-and-trace applications like … pharmaceuticals and medical devices.” RFID is one such hopeful, according to Excell. “Even though there’s the hassle of attaching a silicon chip, the quantities will give you economies of scale, and the point about RFID is it can handle vastly more data; it can be reprogrammed; and it doesn’t have to be visible, so it can be read when the package is upside down or when it’s surrounded by some other wrapping,” he said. “So there’s a lot more scope with RFID, and it’s already, of course, in the chips in credit cards and phones. And phones with RFID readers — they’re also known as NFC, or near-field communications — are now coming in. Even if it stays higher than the cost of QR, the extra data and the reconfigurability, potentially the security of (RFID), may well make it the dominant technology.”
Still, as Excell points out, RFID does require chips, which are ultimately more expensive than QR codes and certainly not something just anyone can create. QR codes today put a lot of power into the hands of businesses of all sizes because they’re easy and affordable to create. “If we accept that print media still do have a future, then it remains a very simple way of transferring data,” Excell said. “(And) the code may completely transform (someday). You could imagine that the information would be transmitted by an entirely different kind of image. … Provided the print industry embraces the quality, and provided we handle the issue of orientation — and if it’s a fine-detail image, then the reader has to be held very still to capture the information — then I would think that there will still be a market … for QR.” Ford ultimately agrees that QR has a future — because of the market’s awareness of and experience now with the code. “I’m not necessarily sure that the QR code is something that’s the absolute way of the future in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s sort of in some ways a little bit of an antiquated technology, … (as) it was designed for cameras with a much lower resolution. … But I think the argument against what I’m saying is just the fact that it’s so established now that it’s a recognizable thing to look at. … I can envision us using these in 30 years even though there are theoretically much better codes out there just because it’s so accepted and been used for so long that that’s what we’re going to continue to do. I think that’s probably pretty likely, to be honest.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Recharger.
Raegen Pietrucha received her B.A. in English from University of Arizona and her M.F.A. in poetry from Bowling Green State University. She is a former teacher and has written for several industries, including legal, private investigation, heath care and currently document printing. She has also served as an editor for both professional and literary publications. Her creative work can be read in Cimarron Review, Edge, Puerto del Sol and other magazines.