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Here’s everything  you need to know about using QR code technology to connect your offline marketing with your online resources.

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As mobile internet access explodes across the country, businesses are presented with new opportunities to engage customers with new marketing channels. Today’s smartphones feature digital cameras with specialized features that can help bridge the gap between offline marketing and online information. One of the newest ways to do this is with a specialized “bar code” technology called QR codes. Here’s what you need to know to start using them as marketing tools.

What is a QR code? A QR code is a kind of “two dimensional” barcode similar to the classic barcodes we are used to seeing on product packages. QR codes look like postage stamps that have a “blocky” design on them. The “QR” stands for “quick response.” QR codes contain actual information – like a traditional barcode contains the stock number and price of a product – that can be deciphered by a code-reader application on a smartphone. When you “scan” a QR code by taking it’s picture with your smartphone, the application deciphers the content  in the code and presents it as normal text, numbers, hyperlinks and even graphics.

How do QR codes work? Basically, QR codes can contain between 4000-7000 characters of information encoded into their compact design. You can create a QR code using software or websites that translate different kinds of information into coded QR images. You can encode web URLs, text, phone numbers and SMS messages into the image that will enable a smartphone to display or connect to your web content or even yourself (by calling you). For example, if you encode a URL into a QR code and place it on a print advertisement, a customer can see the ad, scan the QR code, and follow a web link to your website for additional information.

How do people “scan” the QR code? New smartphones have QR code readers built into them. Usually there is an application in the phone which activates the scanning features of the camera. A user simply starts the app and points the camera at a code image. The phone begins scanning the code “points” to decipher its content. The entire process usually takes about 2-3 seconds. The “contents” of the code will then be displayed on the phone’s screen, such as a URL, text or a phone number.

How do I create a QR code? There are a number of free QR code creators on the internet, which can be found by searching for “qr code generator.” One useful site is where you can encode a variety of content types and generate QR code images which can be downloaded and printed. The site features a service to print your QR code on marketing products like postcards, t-shirts, coffee mugs and other promotional items. Once you downloaded code image, you can then place it on printed materials like any other clip art or image.

Where does it make sense to use QR codes? QR codes are a novel way to help customers receive additional information from traditional media, especially printed items. Adding a QR code to listing sheets, postcards and newspaper ads lets smartphone-savvy customers go from the offline marketing piece to richer online content quickly. QR codes can save space in print media by replacing long text contact information with a small graphic image. Anywhere you can place a square graphic presents an opportunity to connect the physical item to your online content.

What can I encode into a QR code? Think of the many types of information you can offer customers to learn about your products and services. All of them can be encoded into a QR code. If you can link to it on the internet, you can encode it: maps, files, podcasts, videos, social network profiles, blog entries, and even vCards with contact information. Likewise, QR codes can simply contain phone numbers to connect customers to your voice. And the simplest QR codes merely contain up to 7000 characters of additional information about your product or service.

QR codes are a great way to connect your online and offline marketing strategies. They provide consumers with a ready-to-go and low-risk tool to receive additional information other than email, registration pages or downloads. QR codes extend the value of your expensive print investments by driving traffic to online content. With only a few minutes of practice, you should be able to create, distribute and leverage QR code technology across your marketing plan, opening the door for new ways to connect with customers in a mobile-empowered world.