By at Search Engine Watch

I recently spoke at SES New York on best practices for mobile marketing with QR codes. Here’s a follow-up crash course on tools, tactics, and best practices to confidently help you jumpstart a 2D barcode marketing campaign.

1. A QR Code is a 2D Barcode

QR codes are an encoded barcode image resembling a square-like maze. Unlike a 1-dimensional UPC code, a 2-dimensional barcode stores data in both directions and can be scanned vertically or horizontally to be decoded.

1D versus 2D Barcode Comparison

2. 2D Barcodes Can Store a Variety of Data

A traditional 1D barcode (UPC/EAN) stores up to 30 numbers, while a 2D barcode (QR) can store up to 7,089 numbers. The additional storage capacity accommodates a variety of data beyond numbers:

  • Text
  • Hyperlink
  • Telephone number (Phone call)
  • SMS/MMS message
  • Email (Send message)
  • Contact entry (vCard or meCard)
  • Calendar entry (vCalendar)

Storing a hyperlink presents a myriad of possibilities beyond just loading a web page — play a video, download a mobile app, check-in on Foursquare, update a Twitter status, “Like” a Facebook page, display map directions, and more. vcalendar and vcard have limited application but can be used in some circumstances. Vcard files can be collated into a single file and tools are available to convert vcard to csv files which can be used in databae applications. In simple terms? QR codes containing vcards can be collected and processed for contact, data collection, and marketing purposes. The possilbities are endless as long as you know what you can do with the data you can store in a QR code.

3. Read/Decode a 2D Barcode by Scanning it With a Smartphone

(A 2D barcode reader app is required to decode the encoded data.)

2D Barcode Scanning Process

4. 2D Barcodes Can be Placed in and on Nearly Any Location

Once the barcode image is created, it can be printed on nearly any surface and location — newspapers, TV ads, billboards, temporary tattoos, product packaging, clothing labels, cake frosting, and more. This enables you to drive traffic, interaction, and conversion from anywhere. 2D barcodes excel at bringing non-digital media to life.

Note: Use caution placing barcodes online. They should always enhance the user experience. If a user could click a hyperlink, don’t make them scan a code to complete the same task.

Bear in mind the location must be easily scannable. Plastic frames and packaging can reflect light. Lighting can cast shadows, and hillsides and subways can kill Wi-Fi access. Consider all contextual factors that could impact the scanning experience.

5. Mobile Barcode Scanning is on the Rise

QR codes can be used for nearly any function (logistics, advertising, customer service, etc.) for B2B and B2C across a variety of industries:

6. QR Isn’t the Only Type of 2D Barcode

The most popular 2D barcode formats are QR code, DataMatrix, ScanLife EZcode, and Microsoft Tag (Tag).

2D Barcode Popular Formats: QR Code, DataMatrix, ScanLife EZcode, and Microsoft Tag

There are several key differences in these code formats. ScanLife EZcode and Microsoft Tag are proprietary formats only decodable by their tools, while QR and DataMatrix formats are open standard. (Additional format differences can be addressed in another blog post.)

A Google Trends analysis of these 2D barcodes shows “QR code” dominates by far from a search popularity perspective. QR has become a common term used to reference a 2D barcode (2D code, mobile tag, mobile barcode, etc.) even when codes are technically a different format. Even@MicrosoftTag uses the #QRcode hashtag on Twitter.

7. Tools to Generate and Read 2D Barcodes are Free

Tools are available for all major mobile phone handsets. To run a 2D barcode campaign you’ll need to following:

  1. 2D barcode generator (Website service)
  2. 2D barcode reader (Mobile app)
  3. [Optional” 2D barcode management/tracking tool (Website service)
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Different generators have varying features. Choose a generator based on the options for:

  • Code Format (i.e. QR, EZcode, Tag, etc.)
  • Stored Data (i.e. hyperlink, meCard, SMS, etc.)
  • Output (i.e. color, size, download file type, etc.) is a comprehensive QR generator providing a variety of stored content, color, size, and output options. ScanLife’s generator creates their proprietary EZcode as well as QR and DataMatrix formats. Microsoft Tag only generates Tag.

Note: To generate a code on the ScanLife or Microsoft Tag sites, you’ll first need to create an account. (Tag requires providing personal info like birth date, gender, etc.)


Microsoft Tag and ScanLife EZcode can only be decoded by their respective reader apps. Because of the open standard for QR codes, dozens of reader apps are available. (DataMatrix is usually supported on most QR readers.) Some mobile handsets come with a reader app pre-installed.

The following 2D barcode reader apps work on the majority of phones/handsets.

Reader App Code Formats Download Link
(from your mobile phone)
RedLaser QR, UPC/EAN
BeeTagg Reader QR, DataMatrix, BeeTagg
AT&T Code Scanner QR, DataMatrix, UPC/EAN
ScanLife EZcode, QR, DataMatrix, UPC/EAN
Microsoft Tag Tag

RedLaser and AT&T Code Scanner also have geolocation features for local price comparison shopping.

8. Management Tools are Available to Track Scanning Analytics

URL-shortener and web analytics for 2D barcodes storing URL hyperlinks are a great start. For comprehensive scan tracking, you’ll need to use a barcode generator tool that includes tracking analytics. (These tools are not independent.) Some management tools will merely track the number of scans while others provide detailed metrics like demographics, repeat scans, geolocation, and more. Collected analytics depends on the reader app used for scanning, so data results may vary.

Management tools are relatively inexpensive and sometimes free. Paid plans typically have a free trial with fees based on the number of scans.

2D Barcode Management & Tracking Tools:

9. 2D Barcode Content Should Provide Special Value for the Customer

It’s work to scan a barcode, so users have higher expectations as to what content they will find. Reward the user with discounts, exclusive content, or useful tips relevant to the code’s context. Consider scenarios that leverage smartphone features (email, SMS, phone call, video, map, apps, etc.) to save the user time.

For example, including a QR code on a business card that links to a meCard would be a lot easier than the user manually entering the contact record. In contrast, a QR code that links to a website homepage adds limited value.

Note: If you link to a web page, make sure that it’s mobile-friendly.

10. Small or Complex QR Codes Can’t be Scanned by Smartphones With Lesser Quality Cameras

Complex 2D barcodes (a lot going on, not very dense) are more challenging and time consuming to scan. In the case of QR codes, more stored content forces a larger code size. In general, it’s best to minimize data stored in 2D barcodes. Always use a URL-shortener to shrink hyperlinks. (Add analytics tracking parameters before shortening the link.)

Warning: Small, complex QR codes are the biggest mistake currently being made by marketers. (Microsoft Tag and EZcode formats generally don’t have this issue.) Smartphone cameras with resolution less than 4-megapixels can’t scan a QR code smaller than about 1″x1″. Moreover, without the auto-focus (AF) camera feature, a complex QR code will have the same scanning issue, even if the code is larger. The iPhone 3GS and Blackberry are popular handset examples that lack both of these camera features. Unscannable codes kill and delay the adoption rate for 2D barcode campaigns.

Tip: Always provide a back-up (i.e. hyperlink, SMS text message, etc.) option for users to retrieve info within the code. A back-up enables non-smartphone users to also participate.

11. Consumers Need Guidance to Scan 2D Barcodes

The variety of code types, readers, and different terminology is confusing to consumers. Nielsen Company estimates that only 40 percent of U.S. mobile devices are smartphones as of Q1 2011, growing to almost 50 percent by Q3 2011. That means there are a lot of smartphone rookies that barely know how to use their phone, much less distinguish differences in mobile barcode formats and reader apps. As long as 2D barcodes are a novelty concept, always include a brief step-by-step guide with the context of your code.

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Logical steps:

  1. Get the reader app
  2. Scan the code with your mobile device
  3. (Action that happens upon scanning)

Tip: For the reader app download, include a URL link or SMS shortcut to expedite the process. This step is imperative when using proprietary Microsoft Tag or ScanLife EZcode formats since only one reader is capable of scanning their codes.

Steps two and three can be combined as a call-to-action. Example: “Scan to ____.” (… watch a video, download our app, call customer support, etc.)

12. 2D Barcodes can be Customized Artistically

Artistic QR code by DelivrQR codes include an Error Correction Level (ECL) that enables “damaged” codes to still be scanned. The error level tolerance (set by the code generator) can be as high as 30%. As a result, creative license can be used to create designer QR codes from a variety of colors or materials (i.e. jelly beans, sand castles, product packaging, etc.) as long as there is adequate contrast to read the code.

When it comes to advanced QR code graphic design, it’s harder than it looks. If you want to get fancy, I recommend connecting with QR art experts at or

Microsoft Tag also allows for artistic codes. Their custom tag tool allows users to generate art from codes or even overlay codes on top of photographs.


Tip: Some artistic design is fun and good to see; however, don’t go overboard. As long as 2D barcodes are novelty, it’s important that users easily recognize a scannable code from a distance.

13. Testing Scannability is Imperative.

Before you mass print or distribute barcodes be sure to test for scannability. Testing factors:

  • Smartphone cameras (resolution/auto-focus)
  • Reader apps
  • Scan context (i.e. lighting, shadows, surfaces)
  • Scan distance
  • Scan timing

14. Seek Expertise to Ensure Successful Campaigns

To ensure campaign success, consider consulting with a mobile barcode marketing expert, especially if it’s your first time running a mobile barcode campaign. Technology, trends, and tools in this arena are rapidly changing. A few hours of expert consulting can bring your team up to speed, help optimize campaigns for success, and avoid unnecessary embarrassment for poor implementation.

Expertise goes beyond consultants: Talk to your web analytics guru and learn all you can about the mobile users currently accessing your website. Seek out mobile marketing industry statistics regarding popular devices and demographics to appropriately target your audience. (Compete,ScanLife, and eMarketer provide regular useful reports.) Follow the #QRcode Twitter hashtag or subscribe to “QR Code News & Mobile Trends” ( for the latest news and case studies.

Finally, download my QR Code Best Practices Checklist & Campaign Worksheet to help plan and manage your campaigns.

Next Steps…

Are you ready to jump start a QR code campaign? What questions do you have about the technology, tools or tactics? Please let me know in the comments below. I’ll be sure to address the most popular topics in upcoming articles.

Editor’s note: This column originally was published on April 26, 2011, and was the most popular column of the year on Search Engine Watch in 2011. Over the final two weeks of 2011, we’ve celebrated the Best of 2011 by revisiting our most popular columns, as determined by our readers. We hope you have enjoyed this look back!