Decoding ROI in Marketing's QR Codes

Finance gets involved in the fast-growing “quick response” technology for smartphones.

By Karen M. Kroll

As president and chief financial officer of CustomXM, a printing firm in North Little Rock, Ark., Paul Strack has an interest in tools that will keep printed materials relevant in age of increasing digital communication. As a result, he’s watched what are known as “QR codes” for several years. “We saw how this code could serve as a bridge from the print to the digital worlds,” Strack says.

QR, or quick response codes, are those square barcode symbols you’ve certainly noticed -– and perhaps seen your company use -- on growing numbers of magazine ads, product packages and other marketing media. The codes are formatted so they can be scanned by smartphones. Once scanned, a code can direct the user to a mobile website that provides additional information, such as product specifications or notice of a promotion. “QR codes make printed pieces interactive,” says Jason Pinto, chief marketing officer with interlinkONE, a Boston-based provider of marketing software.

A Growing Market

Several months ago, Strack took out a two-page ad in his local business paper. One side featured the back of his head; the other, the front. A QR code placed over his mouth contained instructions on reading it. Readers who scanned it would see a video of his mouth talking, during which Strack provided information on CustomXM and the services they offered.

By tracking responses, Strack found that about 5% of the paper’s 4,000 readers activated the code. In addition, several c-level executives noticed the ad and have begun talking with Strack about potentially working together.

While QR codes haven’t yet hit the mainstream in the U.S, their use is growing. In June, 2011, 14 million mobile phone users in the U.S., or 6.2% of the mobile population, scanned a QR code, according to market research firm comScore Inc.

It All Started with Autos

The technology behind QR codes traces its origins to the automobile industry, says Al Ferrara, partner and national director of the retail and consumer product practice with BDO. Initially, the codes were used to track parts moving along assembly lines. While similar to the bar codes found on many grocery and other products, QR codes can hold greater amounts of information.

To use the codes, a smartphone owner must download an application that allows his or her phone to read QR codes. Once a code is scanned, it provides a link to a mobile website.

The benefits to the businesses that deploy QR codes? “For the first time, you can track marketing leads from a piece of paper to a website; from the physical world to online,” says Bobbie Carlton, founder of Carlton PR & Marketing in Woburn, Mass. The adage that half of all advertising dollars are wasted, but no one knows which half, becomes less accurate, she adds.

While companies that interact directly with consumers appear to be the heaviest users of QR codes currently, those operating in business-to-business sectors also may find them of value.

For instance, different QR codes could be included within the ads a firm places in various trade publications, and used to track the number of individuals that scan the codes from each one, Pinto says.