Spotted Everywhere: Small Square Pixelated Codes

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They are everywhere, but maybe you haven’t noticed them. Or if you did, maybe you didn’t know what they were. If you look more closely, you’ll see in the corners of most advertisements these days, futuristic squares that look like a cross between a barcode and a pixilated image.

So what are they? They’re called QR codes and though they started in Japan in the mid-90s, they’ve only recently become popular in the US. QR codes are currently one of the most buzz-worthy tools for marketers and they seem to be popping up on just about everything, from magazines to postcards to food packaging.

QR stands for “Quick Response,” and that’s precisely the idea behind the codes. Remember those reader service cards that magazines used to have? The idea was for readers to fill out the card and request information directly from certain companies. QR codes are like the new generation of reader service cards, but instead of spending time waiting to hear from companies via a mailed card, a QR code allows companies to engage and interact with customers anytime—especially when someone is already interested in the brand. It’s sort of like a hyperlink in the physical world that links to something online.

Too “marketing geek” for you? Get used to it, as QR codes appear to be here to stay. In June 2011, 14 million mobile users in the U.S. scanned a QR code on their mobile device.

Inexpensive to create and distribute (just search for a QR code creator to get started), a QR code takes marketing and consumer engagement to the next level. Any smartphone can read a QR code through the camera lens and a free downloadable application. Once installed, you point the smartphone’s camera at the code to read or “scan” it. Once the QR code is scanned, you’re led to a Web page or media content designed exclusively for mobile users.

Big brands like Starbucks, Best Buy and Pepsi are using QR codes to connect with tech-savvy customers and build brand loyalty. For small business owners, QR codes may be a great opportunity to supplement other marketing efforts and continue building a relationship with customers but in a new way. If a store sells housewares, for example, the company might be able to further engage a shopper by providing tips, coupons or related video content available only through QR codes placed on or around products. For a restaurant, a flyer or take-out menu can provide a QR code that takes customers to the local newspaper’s review of the place.

A QR code can lead to any content that the creator wants to share, so the destination can be as simple as a contact page or business social media profile. When used smartly, the codes can serve as an affordable way to introduce new patrons to a business, provide fun content and maintain long-term contact with engaged customers.