Top 10 QR Code Marketing Tips for Small Businesses

by James A. Martin

Here's the 411 on QR codes, along with examples of how companies are using them and tips to help small businesses make the most out of QR code marketing.

You've probably tried any number of ways to entice potential customers to your website. Pinterest pinboards. Facebook ads. Link building campaigns for search engine optimization.

But have you tried giving away baked cookies?

Not just any cookies, mind you, but sweets with a Quick Response (QR) code printed on them. For example, this unusual marketing tactic helped drive traffic to Incisive Media's website during the fall 2011 SES Chicago conference, according to an Incisive Media executive.

Here's the back story on QR codes, along with examples of how companies are using them and tips to help small businesses make the most out of QR code marketing.

The QR Code Back Story

QR codes have been around since 1994; Toyota invented them to track vehicles during manufacturing. But in the past few years, businesses large and small have started using QR codes to direct consumers to a specific URL, such as a Web page offering discount coupons, a YouTube video, or more information about a product on display.

A QR code for small business marketing

Figure 1: Scanning this QR code will take you to the mobile version of author Jim Martin's website.

The matrix QR barcode consists of square dots in a square pattern against a white background. When you scan a code with a smartphone QR reader app, you're automatically taken to a designated URL on your device. There are countless websites offering free or paid QR code generator tools, such as QReate & Track, Delivr, and QRStuff.com. It's extremely easy to generate a QR code using these and other websites.

Aside from baked cookies, QR codes are showing up all over the place: in movie posters, on business cards, in magazine articles and ads, in store windows -- even in Times Square billboards.

Consumers are increasingly paying attention to the codes. A June 2011 comScore study found that 14 million mobile U.S. users scanned a QR code. For the three-month period ending in October 2011, a monthly average of 20.1 million U.S. mobile phone owners scanned a QR code using their device, according to comScore.

More comScore QR code stats worth knowing:

  • 59.4 percent of mobile users scanned QR codes from home (from product packaging or a print publication); 44 percent were in a retail store; 26.6 percent were inside a grocery store; 21.4 percent scanned a QR code at work and 11.2 percent were outside or on public transportation. Nearly 10 percent scanned a QR code while in a restaurant.
  • The June 2011 study found that of those who scanned QR codes, 60.5 percent were male; 53.4 percent were aged 18 to 34; and 36.1 percent had an annual household income of $100,000 or higher.

QR Code Business Examples

Small businesses everywhere are experimenting with QR code marketing, many with encouraging results.

The owner of North Coast Wine & Beer in Ohio placed large QR codes on the front of two of his three retail stores, according to Cleveland.com. Manny Rai, the owner, says eight to 10 people scan the code every day. The codes, which can be scanned from up to 40 feet away, are helping his business attract attention, Rai says.

A Burlington, N.J. gardening business, Mike the Gardener Enterprises, printed a QR code on a bumper sticker that directs consumers to the business's "Seeds of the Month" YouTube video, owner Mike Podlesny told Entrepreneur.com. Podlesny offered the free sticker to fans of his Facebook page, resulting in more than 1,200 views of the video.

Rico Elmore, the owner of Fatheadz Eyewear, has added QR codes to his company's racecar driver sponsorship program. The racecar drivers that Fatheadz sponsors autograph and give out "hero" cards to their fans at events. The cards contain a QR code. When the fan scans the code, Fatheadz's website pops up, Elmore told Psychology Today.

Large corporations are using QR codes for marketing purposes, too. For example, Starbucks uses QR codes in stores to promote its mobile payment app and to provide more information about its coffee products. Some Starbucks QR codes have also let consumers listen to music from a region in which a particular coffee was grown.

Verizon recently increased sales by 200 percent through a competition in which its retail store customers scanned a QR code to share their competition entries on Facebook, according to Mashable. When a friend used the link to purchase a Verizon device, the customer who scanned the QR code would win a smartphone. Verizon experienced a $35,000 return on a $1,000 investment.

QR Code Marketing Tips for Small Businesses

1. Start with well-defined goals. Think about why you're asking someone to scan your code in the first place. What do you want them to do? Are you simply trying to increase traffic to your home page? Educate consumers about a product or service? Your business goals should determine how, when, why, and if you even use QR codes.

2. Decide if a QR code is right for your target audience. Given the young-male-skewing QR code user demographic, a QR code may not make sense for your business. For instance, if you're a real estate agent selling homes in a retiree community, plastering a big QR code on a home-for-sale sign is probably not worth the effort. However, if you're marketing a loft condo in tech-savvy San Francisco, using a QR code on the home-for-sale sign may be a good strategy.

Also, keep in mind that not everyone likes how QR codes look. If you're going for a sophisticated, streamlined look with your brand, a QR code could be the wrong approach.

3. Make scanning a QR code worth the effort. In order to get to the URL in a QR code, a customer must take out his or her smartphone and take a picture of the code with a QR reader smartphone app. While there are many free apps available, the customer may need to download one in order to get to the link you're promoting. That's an extra step that many potential customers aren't likely to take -- unless you give them an incentive, such as a discount coupon they can download and use right away in your store.

4. Consider printing a short URL near the QR code. Many potential customers won't have a clue what your QR code is or does, so you'll probably need to add a brief explanation as a caption to the QR code. And if space allows, you should consider adding a shortened version of the URL in the QR code, for those who don't understand QR codes or don't have a QR scanning app installed. (Services such as bit.ly let you abbreviate long URLs for free.)

5. Your QR code should link to a mobile-optimized website, rather than a standard desktop site. Sending customers to a site that doesn't display well on a smartphone isn't going to show your brand in a positive light.

6. Test the QR code using a variety of devices and QR reader apps before publishing or posting it. Each time, make sure the code takes you to the desired Web page without a hitch.

7. Use analytics to determine how your QR code marketing efforts are working. A number of free and paid Web services offer analytics to help you track how your code is performing. You can use Google Analytics to see how much traffic QR codes are driving to your site, for instance. QR code services such as QReateBUZZ, TAGO, and BeQRious offer more detailed analytics.

8. Consider cell phone signal strength when deciding where to post QR codes. To access the URL in your QR code, customer smartphones need a wireless signal. And so, a QR code within an ad on a subway platform might be ineffective if cell tower signals are weak underground.

9. Use QR codes where people are likely to have time on their hands. Does the freeway in your city typically bottleneck around the same place every weekday? If so, a QR code on a billboard at that chokepoint might be worth the investment. A QR code on a bus stop ad might also help you get attention. Some vintners are adding QR codes to their wine bottles to deliver more information about the wine to upscale restaurant patrons enjoying a leisurely meal.

10. Add your logo to your QR codes. If you or someone on your team is proficient with image editing software like Photoshop, you can implant your company logo within your QR codes, just as companies such as Adidas and Subway often do. Just be sure to test the codes to ensure they work properly.

Will Your Customers Appreciate It?

Consumers who scan QR codes are still a minority, and some experts say QR code scanning will probably never be a mainstream consumer activity. And though generating QR codes is quick and often free, that doesn't mean you should do it. Ultimately, like any marketing effort, you should be sure a QR code is something your target customers will use and appreciate.

James A. Martin writes about SEO and social media and is an SEO/social media/blogging consultant. His most recent article for Small Business Computing was "Top 10 Small Business Tips for Effective Landing Pages." Follow him on Twitter.

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This article was originally published on Wednesday May 2nd 2012
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