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Time to decode the mobile QR-code

In Japan, 2-D (QR) codes are found on everything from business cards to potato sacks.

With 2-D codes showing up in European and North American markets with increased frequency and effect, it’s time to get up to speed on what they are and why marketers should be getting excited.   

What are 2-D codes and where did they come from?

It all started in Japan in 2002 when mobile network operators started incorporating 2-D barcode readers in mobile devices which allowed users to launch a specific mobile web URL by taking a picture of an encoded 2-D barcode with their mobile camera.

As taking a picture was faster and easier than typing in a long URL or typing in a keyword attached to a shortcode, it took off in a big way. Soon after 2D – or QR (quick response) codes began appearing in newspapers, outdoor billboard, bus shelters, magazines and even food products.

By incorporating a QR code into traditional media, suddenly consumers could scan a 2D code with their mobile device and:

  • Enter a contest
  • Get a coupon or gift certificate
  • Download ringtones, graphics and games
  • Get nutritional information
  • Get product information
  • Get news updates
  • Preview movies or songs
  • Book tickets – or receive e-tickets
  • Access information on a mobile website
  • Get directions to a location with a link to google maps
  • Auto-add a meeting to their calendar or contact to their contact book

A 2-D code looks like a pixilated 1980s Ms. Pac Man game board

A grid of square cells allows information to be encoded in a few different ways resulting in different flavors of 2-D codes. Common types include Aztec, QR, Data Matrix, Shotcodes (which are circular), EZcodes and Beetagg codes.

Incorporating a 2-D code into new and old media is like adding an interactive call to action – which of course is trackable and measurable. Just as text messaging (SMS) is now allowing marketers to engage consumers at the point of contact, 2-D codes can enrich and extend that experience much further.

There are still barriers to overcome

In order to scan a 2-D code, you need a 2-D code reader or decoder on your mobile device. Unlike in Japan where all mobile devices come with one pre-loaded, consumers in the rest of the world are asked to download an application first. As we’ve seen with Yahoo mobile – even if the application is fantastic, downloading is nearly never a fantastic experience and therefore some people will abandon the process before it’s complete.

It took me nearly an hour, for example, to find, download and figure out how to use iMatrix – a 2-D decoder for the iPhone. Many consumers would have given up long before that.

The other barrier has been that many phones did not come with a decent mobile web browser to view the information decoded from the 2-D code. Fortunately this barrier is quickly disappearing. Nearly all mobile devices now come with decent browsers and consumers are replacing their mobile devices more often then ever before.

Despite these barriers to mass adoption, there has been wider-spread integration of 2-D codes in traditional media in China, Europe, Russia, Mexico and increasingly in the U.S. 

Last summer Denstu Canada even launched a pioneering campaign leveraging QR codes in a Vespa campaign across Canada.

From my point of view, we are one big TV show, media stunt, or major contest away from bringing 2-D codes into the mainstream in Canada – even with the barriers discussed.

Even Social Media sites are now incorporating them. The “Add to Friends” QR Facebook application allows you to create a unique QR code that will link back to your profile. The application will even print your personal code to a variety of T-shirts and bags…for a fee of course.

If you work for a brand or agency with a brand that is looking to cut through the clutter, be innovative while engaging consumers in an interactive & measurable way, you should consider decoding the QR code as part of your next multi-channel campaign.

One Comment

  1. R. James
    R. James March 18, 2009

    QR codes are indeed big around the globe. Pepsi UK did a great mobile contest recently. You DO need the mobile software (bar code scanner) on your mobile phone. Some phones come with it. HOWEVER, sadly, in Canada, your mobile network operator WILL restrict your freedom on what you can and can not do with your mobile phone. So this is really a fantasy concept for Canada – until Canadian consumers start doing something about it.

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