Business cards. We all carry them and often it is the first thing we give after an introductory handshake. When we return to the office after networking with stacks of them, one of two things happen: we manually enter our new contacts into our address books at that moment, or they end up just cluttering the desk.
Or worse yet, we forget our business cards when we go out and happen to only have a smart phone in our pocket.
What if there was some way to enter them into your address book without the manual input and clutter? Or always have a business card on hand? QR codes provide just such a solution.
QR or "quick response" codes are 2D bar codes that can be scanned by a smart phone with a QR reader. They deliver a whole host of information from simple to complex.
QR codes are slowly gaining acceptance in the United States, though they have been used in some Asian countries for more than a decade. They started out as tracking systems for parts in the auto industry and have evolved to have a wide range of consumer uses.
So how does this apply to businesses? Wayne Sutton, a nationally recognized expert advising large brands on social networking, says QR codes often offer business owners an "ah-ha moment" because they are so versatile.
Large brands such as Calvin Klein and Gap have used QR codes, with the former replacing their well-known racy billboards in New York City and Los Angeles with a QR code. Using a QR scanner on smart phones, people were sent to a mobile site where they viewed a 40-second commercial.
Gap used the codes in their stores last fall to promote their new jeans and help customers find the best style for them.
QR codes are cost-effective and a low risk for businesses, Sutton said, and another way to engage them and provide them with value.
To that end, companies can also offer coupons using QR codes.
Locally, commercial real estate firm NAI Isaac recently used QR codes to advertise their available property listings.
Dawn Bryant, the firm's marketing director, found the codes better served their prospective clients by giving them access to information they needed as quickly as possible.
"With every QR code used, we see spikes on the web pages linked to the QR codes," Bryant said.
QR codes have also been used for events. Sutton created custom codes for events such as North Carolina's creativity celebration SPARKCon Raleigh, where participants scanned codes providing them with conference or venue information. QR codes can also be integrated with location-based social networks such as Foursquare, Gowalla or TriOut.
Look for QR codes to gain momentum in the United States in 2011, says Phillip Davis, co-founder of start-up JumpScan. The company offers personal pages aggregating your contact information that can be accessed by QR codes.
Generating QR codes for your business is simple and easy. There are many free code generators and scanners available. Sutton suggests keeping these things in mind:
■ Create a QR code that you can track. It is important to choose a code generator that provides data on viewers such as Likify.net, BeQRious (Qrcodetracking.com), and Jumpscan.com.
■ Use a QR code that allows you to change the back-end information without changing the code.
■ Educate your staff so they can champion the use of the QR code and accurately inform customers about it.
■ Have a call to action. Be mindful of what you want people to do. Do you want to provide them with information? A coupon?
■ Make sure your Web site is mobile ready.
QR codes provide a solution to a problem that business owners didn't know they had: how to provide seamless bridges between print, online and mobile content and allow customers one-stop access to information and promotions.
Or as JumpScan's Davis says, they provide a physical link to the virtual world.
Ann Marie van den Hurk is an award-winning, accredited public relations professional specializing in small businesses. She proudly called Lexington home, but now lives in North Carolina. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter at @amvandenhurk.