How To Use QR Codes: A Marketer’s Guide

The use of QR codes is a bit out of control. Companies and the marketers within are smitten by the seeming ease with which they can ‘do mobile’ by printing a 2D bar-code that can be read by a smartphone (with the right software and operated by a motivated user). The reason I say it’s out of control is that they are being implemented with a lack of care that is uncharacteristic of good marketing. The result is very poor user experience and even outright failure. We’ve written about these failures many times on

Recognizing that the use of QR codes in the U.S. is still new, and in the interest of being instructive rather than critical, we’ve put together some guidance for marketers who want to use QR codes*. QR codes can be a quick and powerful way to engage users and there is often a bit of mystery as to what lies ‘behind’ the code. A good implementation will reap the benefits.

Note: Most implementations are where the scanned code directs the user’s phone to a URL and sometimes directly to a video. To-date extremely few are designed to trigger SMS or a phone call. We focus on the URL approach here but the basic tenets hold for most implementations.

Consider The Mobile Context
This is the one some marketers overlook. Consider the environment in which the code will be seen. Be particularly careful with outdoor advertising such as billboards and buses where users may be in their cars or simply can’t get into a position to scan the code properly. The user needs to be able to pull out their phone and scan. They shouldn’t have to stand on a bus seat or run 145 mph.

Make a Flexible Code
Try to avoid using URLs that have been shortened using services like and because they don’t allow you to change the URL. Better to use a code generator that allows you to change the url or use a url that points to a page on your own servers that you can redirect. Why do this? For flexibility and as a back-up. Say you have a QR code for a ‘Deal of the Week’. With a code you can redirect you simply point the code to that week’s deal instead of over-writing last week’s deal. This would have saved the ASUS Computer campaign. Try and

Optimize Pages for Mobile
Please, please point the code to a mobile-friendly URL. While some web sites render acceptably on a smartphone, most don’t. The purpose in life for a QR code is to extend the time you get to spend with the user and treat them to content they can’t get from the printed page. Don’t send them to your non-optimized home page. Build mobile-optimized landing pages that can be read by most web-capable phones and deliver a solid experience. Avoid linking your code directly to a video. If you want to promote video add a link to your landing page. This way when a user has trouble with the video the experience isn’t a complete failure as there may still be images and promotional copy on the landing page.

Include Instructions
Give the user instructions on what to do. QR codes are still novel to may readers and most don’t even know what it is let alone what to do when they see one. Tell them what they will get when they scan the code and brief instructions on how to download a reader.

Include an SMS Option
Supplement with an SMS keyword.  This could double or even triple your participation as many more phones can send SMS and view mobile-friendly web pages than can scan a mobile barcode. In fact, consider SMS instead of a barcode to simplify your call-to-action.

Test, Test, and Re-test
Test your QR code before finalizing any printed material or making it available to scan. It sounds obvious but this one step can save the whole campaign, just ask ASUS. Start by testing all the phones from people in the marketing department but go over to the IT department, too, as they are more likely to have a sample of Android-based phones rather than iPhones. Try to find a Blackberry or two as well. As part of this process of testing it’s important to test your code using a wide variety of 2D barcode readers. Your code, if not proprietary like Microsoft Tag, should work on all or most readers.

* For the purposes of this article we are referring to all two-dimensional (matrix) barcodes including standard QR codes, Aztec codes, data matrix codes, semacodes and Microsoft Tags.

## Copyright 2010 – Kelly McIvor ##

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3 thoughts on “How To Use QR Codes: A Marketer’s Guide

  1. Pingback: Brain Quest Should Think Smarter About Using QR Codes | Mobile Marketing FAIL

  2. Pingback: Can the QR code make a comeback? | marketing and other things

  3. Harriet Rees

    Great point about ensuring that the QR code points to a mobile-friendly URL. Often mobile websites are forgotten about but the industry is definitely making a shift toward this platform. We recently wrote about how publishers can monetise their website on the mobile web and as more developers and publishers realise the potential volume of mobile traffic it’s likely the focus will increase rapidly. Take a look at our blog at


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