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October 17, 2011

Cracking the code | QR codes gain ground in the battle for consumers' attention

Photo/Tim Greenway Real estate broker April Tracy says QR codes give potential buyers instant listing information

Been noticing those black and white pixelated boxes in advertisements, on posters, doorways and even adorning your morning cereal box? Quick Response codes, or QR codes for short, are a type of matrix barcode that directs users to a specific webpage when scanned, usually via a smartphone.

While they aren't quite considered mainstream yet, QR code usage and popularity are on the rise. In June of this year, 14 million mobile users in the United States — about 6.2% of the total domestic mobile audience — scanned a QR or bar code on their mobile device, according to a study by comScore, an Internet retailing site. The study found that users are most likely to scan codes found in newspapers or magazines and on product packaging.

That behavior represents a huge opportunity for businesses to engage directly with progressive consumers, says Amanda O'Brien, vice president of marketing for Hall Internet Marketing in Portland. O'Brien organizes Social Media Breakfast Maine, a monthly networking opportunity for local businesses to discuss and learn about trends in social media. QR codes have been on her radar for several years now, but she says local businesses are still trying to figure out how to effectively use them in their marketing strategies.

"You have someone's attention and they're doing some sort of physical interaction with your company and you should capitalize on it and give them something unique," she says. The biggest mistake she sees are businesses using QR codes without a bigger marketing strategy. "Too many [businesses] are putting it there just to put it there and they're not thinking forward and not using it well," she says, for instance, by simply driving people to their homepage. The link the QR code directs people to must be engaging and interesting, she says.

Set the goal, then pick the tool

O'Brien advises businesses determine first what their marketing goal is and where they're going, instead of picking the tool first and then creating a marketing plan. "If your goal is to get more customers in the door or more people to redeem a coupon, figure out what tools will get you there," she says. She likens QR codes to other new technology such as social media, which many companies have jumped into without a goal or a plan in place. "Many people sign up for Facebook and Twitter and then get completely overwhelmed and realize it's not going anywhere and there's no goal," she says.

Sea Bags Inc., a Maine-based company that makes handmade tote bags from recycled sails, is using a strategic approach with QR codes, incorporating them into its marketing strategy in multiple phases. The initial goal is to educate consumers about the company. "The goal for this, believe it or not, is not to sell more product, it's to build awareness of our brand," says Beth Shissler, president of Sea Bags, headquartered on Custom House Wharf in Portland. "We want to show the consumer that we are authentic to who we say we are, that we're here on the wharf and we're using recycled sails."

For this initial rollout, the company collaborated with its marketing agency, Kemp Goldberg, to produce a two-and-a-half-minute video for its website. Beginning in the fourth quarter of this year, Sea Bags will include bag tags (also made of recycled sails) with QR codes printed on them directing people to that video on YouTube.

Implementing this strategy took about six months of talking and planning, says Shissler. The company's next phase will be to highlight some of its key partnerships, also through a video. Down the line, Shissler says there are plans to include QR codes with limited edition bags that provide information on the pedigree of the sail a particular bag is made from.

She hopes QR codes will contribute to the reach of her marketing capabilities. "These tags will be included on overseas shipments and could help build our brand overseas. It's a cost-effective way to advertise in areas that would otherwise be prohibitive," she says. But Shissler doesn't want to get too ahead of herself. "First we want to introduce the company and then introduce the mantra of the company, and then we'll get to the specific product," she says.

QR codes as a value-add

Social media has been the cornerstone of the marketing strategy for South Portland real estate company The Cohen-Tracy Team at the Maine Real Estate Network, says broker April Tracy. The company opened a Facebook account in 2008 "and that's how we built our business," she says. "Had it not been for Facebook, I don't know where our business would be."

Implementing QR codes is the most recent addition to the company's marketing strategy. Tracy first learned about QR codes in 2009 while attending a Social Media Breakfast Maine event where someone wondered out loud why real estate companies don't have QR codes at their properties so potential customers can scan them and see the details of the listing. "It was genius," she says. In July of this year, the company began adding signs with QR codes at its listing sites. "Now we have a 'Scan Me' sign at all of our properties that takes people directly to that [property's] specific webpage so you can see everything you need to know about the listing."

Tracy foresees QR codes saving time and money. "In our business, we get so many phone calls on a listing with people asking how much it is and how many bedrooms, and if more people knew how to use these QR codes, it would cut down on that," she says. By adding signage with QR codes, the company also anticipates a reduction of printed fliers and fewer expensive DVDs that include the same information.

In addition, Tracy doesn't have to waste valuable time replenishing information tubes with printed fliers or DVDs. Once QR codes take hold in the mainstream mindset, she thinks customers will be more satisfied because they have easy and quick access to the exact information they want. And it could boost the company's image. "The more tech-savvy people are out there, hopefully they will see that we're using QR codes and will list with us because they know we're savvy too," she says.

Being considered ahead of the curve is important, especially if your primary audience is technologically advanced. The Portland Music Foundation, a nonprofit organization aimed at boosting local music in Maine, recently printed 10,000 fliers with a map highlighting venues that regularly offer live music along the Congress Street corridor. Included on that flier is a QR code. "Because we could only fit so many venues on the map, we felt it was important to have a QR code that brings people to a Google map with 30 more live-music venues," says Sam Pfeifle, secretary and co-founder of PMF. Once at the Google map, the user can sort music venues according to type of music, visit a venue's website or click on the map for directions. "People expect us to be on the cutting edge and using QR codes shows that we're aware of cutting-edge technology," he says.

In addition to including QR codes on printed fliers, the PMF also puts a QR code sticker on the plastic case that holds the fliers, so even if it's empty, the QR code can still be scanned and the information shared. In the three weeks the fliers have been on the streets, Pfeifle says there's been a noticeable increase in traffic to that webpage, although it's still early to determine the campaign's effectiveness.

But that underscores another advantage to a QR code strategy: Businesses can measure the success of individual marketing campaigns, says O'Brien, a big benefit to clients who want proof of their marketing investments. A business that steers visitors to its homepage or a commonly visited landing page via a QR code can use a tool like Google Analytics to measure hits. And they can measure their ad campaigns in real time. "Digital marking is the most measurable thing we have," says O'Brien. "New media strategies have the luxury of not being in the old run-time cycle." When businesses run ads in monthly magazines, for example, they can't measure immediate impact, or the number of eyeballs on print ads. "Now you can react to this stuff right away and if it's not working, you can see that it's not working and you can try something else," says O'Brien.

Getting the word out

Given their relatively recent role in marketing, QR codes could use some visibility. O'Brien says if you want people to scan your QR code, you need to tell them what it is. "An extra hoop for businesses to jump through is that they have to teach customers how to use it," says O'Brien. "Customers just don't know what it is."

Educating the customer has been biggest challenge of the QR code campaign for The Cohen-Tracy Team in the three months since it started using them on its listing signs. "Most people don't know what it is," says Tracy. They receive a number of phone calls asking what this "Scan Me" thing is, she adds. To help educate the consumer, The Cohen-Tracy Team has incorporated QR codes into its traditional advertising campaign. The company started printing a QR code in its ad with the Portland Daily Sun that explains what it is and how to use it. The company also plans to add a testimonial section to its website to help explain how to use those little black and white boxes.

Shissler says Sea Bags doesn't do a lot of print advertising, except around the holidays, but it did include QR codes on event banners this summer to familiarize people with the technology. For example, the company sponsored a regatta and the Lobsterman Triathlon and included a QR code on its promotional banners. Predictably, staff fielded questions on what it was. "QR codes just aren't mainstream yet and people see them, but they don't act on them," says Shissler.

Leischen Stelter, a writer based in Portland, can be reached at

Want your own QR code that directs people to your website? QR code generators are free all over the Internet. Try this one ( It will spit out a jpeg that you can download and put anywhere you want. Scan this QR code to get there.

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