You may or may not have seen these funny little barcode things, either in magazines, on billboards or even on plane or train tickets. But before we can get into what they are and what they do, you need to know where they come from.
QR codes were first created in 1994 by a subsidiary of Toyota, called Denso Wave, to track vehicles during the manufacturing process, and are in essence just a different sort of barcode. So why did we need another kind of barcode, you ask?
The normal barcodes which you and I are used to seeing on cereal boxes or candy bars can only be read in one dimension, left to right, whereas QR codes are read in two dimensions, left to right and top to bottom. This means that the amount of data, which can be stored on a QR code, is exponentially greater than what can be stored on a standard barcode.
Whilst deciphering the magic of these codes, it is also important to know that QR stands for ‘quick response’. It is much faster for a barcode scanner to read a QR code compared to a traditional barcode, which is one of the reasons why it is so popular in the manufacturing industry. Another massive advantage they have is that they do not require bulky and ugly barcode readers to be scanned. Most modern smartphones will have a QR code reader built-in, and if not, there are about 50 different ones you can download for all types of mobile operating systems.
Now we know QR codes can be scanned with phones, let us focus on how they can be used with mobile devices.
As you step out of your house, you are going to be slammed with tons of advertising clutter and almost everyone is going to try and connect with you in some way… visit our website at xyz123.com, call us on 111 blah blah blah, opt into our SMS list by doing who knows what!
Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to get customers to connect with you online, over the phone, through text, and try to give them the location of your store; this is what we are all trying to do. The problem is that there are so many URLs, SMS short codes and phone numbers out there that it becomes impossible for people to remember them when they’re ‘offline’. Think of the last time you walked past a movie or concert poster and could not remember the web address to check it out later. This is where the real power of QR codes comes in.
QR codes are a physical hyperlink between the offline (real) world and the online (Mark Zuckerberg, Google and YouTube) world (if you have a capable mobile device of course) and they are essentially used to help drive traffic from traditional media to digital media outlets.
When you scan a QR code with a mobile phone it can automatically dial a phone number, create or display a piece of text, or take you to a website. It all depends on how you have decided to use it. When brands use these codes, they traditionally embed them in their press ads or outdoor media in order to help drive traffic to their website or product page.
Please bear in mind that when we are scanning these codes with our mobile devices they will take us to an online platform via the same device, meaning if you don’t have a data connection on your phone, then scanning a QR code with an embedded web link wont make much sense as you cannot go to the site without a data connection. However, QR codes are not simply used to direct people to a website and if you are in a market where there are fewer data users, such as Pakistan, then you can create a QR code which displays plain text and which can be used as a sort of coupon, or you can get it to create an SMS to help customers opt into your SMS subscription list.
I am not going to lie to you, the most awesome uses of QR codes are with data (and we will get there, eventually). The problem in Pakistan is that there are a lot of people who carry around phones which cost more than my computer but don’t actually have data enabled on those devices, thus shutting out most of the really cool things we could do with mobile phones, apart from SMS.
However, let’s imagine for a minute that we have a really large base of consumers with phones that are capable of scanning QR codes and are also data enabled. This means that you can place QR codes along with your web address on all the billboards around town; a customer scans the code and goes straight to your website (no chance of forgetting that web address!). Another customer scans a QR code in a restaurant and opts into the SMS list to receive updates on new menu items. A third customer goes shoe shopping and scans a QR code to receive a coupon for a discount when checking out. These are all small, isolated instances, which help bridge the gap between the real world and the online world.
If you have a large line of products, let’s say clothes for example, you could place a QR code on the label and enable people to visit the product page and read the reviews someone else left on your site or Facebook application. If you own a restaurant, you can let people order from your menu by scanning QR codes and send them straight to the kitchen via SMS. You can do practically anything that comes to mind, QR codes make it easy!
As I said earlier, QR codes are generally used as a means for linking the real world and the digital world. Remember that they were used to track physical parts in a factory to inventory and production systems which reside on a computer. So if you are already on a digital medium don’t annoy your customers or platform users by putting a QR code on the computer screen, it doesn’t make sense; sure it works, but there is no need and it won’t make a difference because all the user has to do is click on the hyperlink!
Go ahead, use them on your billboards, pole signs, press ads, or even your TV commercials and make it easier for the offline world to connect to the online world.
Aamir Rauf is Chief Digital Officer, Lowe & Rauf. firstname.lastname@example.org