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The paper is peppered with 169 individual QR codes directing anyone who scans them to designers Anita Modha and Jonathan Nodrick's favourite websites.
The paper is peppered with 169 individual QR codes directing anyone who scans them to designers Anita Modha and Jonathan Nodrick's favourite websites.


QR codes are suddenly everywhere Add to ...

The people at Ethical Bean Coffee Co. Ltd. had a challenge on their hands.

The company wanted more flexibility in where it was sourcing its coffee beans, in an effort to catch the best produce from around the world that met its standards.

This led to a logistical hitch: Disclosure was important to the company, since, as a producer of fair-trade, organic coffee, it caters to a clientele who cares about what’s in their cup.

But it would have been impractical to produce different packaging for every different source of beans.

The solution: QR codes.

Instead of custom packaging, the company puts a sticker on each bag of coffee bearing a blocky QR code that, when scanned, links the customer to more information about the bag of coffee than ever could have been printed on the package in the first place.

“We like to think of ourselves as a pretty transparent company,” says Viren Malik, chief operating officer of the Vancouver-based firm. “It’s part of our marketing machine, but it’s also a way to be super-transparent.”

QR codes have gone from obscurity to ubiquity in a hurry. Their purpose is simple: Scan one with a smart phone camera, using an app, and it will direct the user straight to online content.

Effectively, they’re a shortcut for doing what users could have done the hard way – load up a browser and punch in a URL.

Technically speaking, a QR code is a two-dimensional bar code, which is exactly what it sounds like: A bar code like the kind you’d see on a can of soup is a binary code that’s expressed as a series of bars. A QR code works on the same principle, but encodes data up and down as well as side to side.

Where a bar code is scanned by a laser scanner, a QR code is typically read by waving a smart phone camera at it (though the phone still often makes a satisfying supermarket beep when the code is recognized).

There are many different formats of 2D bar codes, but QR is the one that caught on. iPhone users need to download code-scanning applications, which are free; BlackBerry and Android phones come with them.

The sudden prevalence of QR codes in North America has raised plenty of questions about their use and utility. Some have questioned their value as marketing tools. (Even this writer has voiced his concerns.) Others have asked if they’re permanent solutions, or merely a transitional technology, a way of reaching Web content that bridges the era of typing in URLs by hand, and the next generation of smart phone technologies, which can enable information transfer just by swiping a device near a chip or poster, no code-scanning required.

The question, then, is: How can businesses use QR codes to generate real value for customers – and not just extra layers of advertising, or technology for technology’s sake?

By linking to online content, the codes might just facilitate a task that users could perform for themselves. But making small tasks easier can make a huge difference in the number of people who are willing to do it.

And QR codes can do more than just have to link to a website’s front page – Ethical Bean, for instance, uses them to link to very specific content, which would have required an even more fiddly URL.

This is one way to think of their utility: By making mobile surfing easier, a QR code will lower the barriers that might have deterred a user from visiting a link.

By the same token, however, it will seldom inspire users to visit a website they wouldn’t have otherwise.

Some markets have harnessed QR codes to good effect. Realtors, for instance, take advantage of the fact that QR codes can be geographically specific. By putting QR codes on lawn signs, they can harness passers-bys’ curiosity about the property, and offer them details while they’re still on-site, not later, when the house is but a memory.

Customer curiosity and a desire to promote the transparency of their business is also what drove Ethical Bean to adopt QR codes. The company developed the system in-house, using a single, part-time developer.

Its system is noteworthy for a few reasons. For one thing, it demonstrates the way a robust online presence can effortlessly span platforms. Customers can scan the QR code with a standard code-reading app, which will redirect them to a mobile-optimized website, or they can download EthicalBean’s own custom iPhone app for a smoother experience.

Alternatively, each bag bears a short lot number; customers can plug this into the home page of EthicalBean’s regular website, and they’ll be taken to the exact same information as mobile users would see.

This information is practical (at least, if the provenance of your coffee beans is on your radar) and bears a human touch: The information is as detailed as the fair-trade certificate the coffee came with, with information about the co-op it was grown at, and even the name, picture and a capsule biography of the employee who roasted this particular lot of coffee.

For a small business of 25 people, it’s a small but very personal marketing outreach that wouldn’t have been practical without this data on-hand.

Meanwhile, the company can store the data that comes in from scans. Mr. Malik says that about 2 per cent of codes get scanned – higher than coupon redemption rates, he notes.

He can pore over, say, the last 1,000 scans to see where in the world his coffee has ended up. The result is a clearer picture of who’s buying what, and of what consumers want to know about their products.

“We’re now able to have a conversation with our consumer,” Mr. Malik says. “The technology now allows us to communicate.”

The series continues next Monday.

Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website .

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