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QR codes 101: What those squiggles do

Quick Response (QR) codes link consumers to websites fast. Here's how to use them, and why you'd want to.

By Staff writer / November 24, 2011

You can find QR codes all over these days. But how do you use them?

Michael Sloan

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All of a sudden, Quick Response (QR) codes are everywhere. The checker-patterned squares now come emblazoned on everything from in-store displays at Macy's to bottles of Heinz ketchup. You may have even spotted them in recent issues of this magazine.

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Snap a picture of one with your smart phone and the QR code will automatically load a website, cue up a video, or download a coupon right to your device.

Yet despite QR codes' seeming ubiquity, few people know how to use them. The idea sounds simple – scan and enjoy! – but using the technology actually requires a little prep work.

So, with companies experimenting with increasingly frequent and creative uses for QR codes, here's a quick primer on how to use them and why you'd want to.

"Nobody's going to have to go back home and go, 'What was the website I was going to look up earlier? I can't remember,' " says Rick Mathieson, a marketing consultant and author of "The On-Demand Brand." Now you can pull out your phones – the one device that people have on them all the time – and take action immediately."

"QR codes are a notion whose time has come," says Mr. Mathieson, "if only the technology would catch up with the concept."

The problem, he says, revolves around the three QR hurdles. First, you need to have a certain kind of phone. The Apple iPhone, Windows Phone 7 devices, and the numerous Google Android phones all make the cut. BlackBerry, Nokia, and other phones might work, depending on whether they have both a camera and some way to download software, which leads to the second hurdle:

You need to download a QR program onto your phone. Despite the promise of "scan and enjoy," snapping a normal cellphone photo of the black-and-white patterns won't do anything special. The phone must use an application designed to read QR codes. The good news: Each of the devices mentioned above offers multiple, free options. A quick search for "QR" in your respective app store should do the trick.

And third, marketers need to win you over. Even after you download the right software, using a QR code requires you to take out your phone, open the correct app, let your camera focus on the two-tone tiles, snap the picture, wait for the phone to decipher the code, and then enjoy your reward. The process from reaching into your pocket to receiving your prize takes about 20 seconds – not exactly convenient on the go.

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