In the same way that websites, then MySpace URLs, and more recently Facebook pages started appearing in TV, magazine and newspapers ads, we're starting to see more QR codes  appear in traditional advertisements.
QR codes have been spotted on direct mail pieces, movie posters, business cards and in Times Square. Whether they'll have the staying power of your website or of your MySpace page has yet to be determined, but while they still enjoy the buzz of the "next big thing," you can take advantage of QR codes in marketing your small business.
What is a QR code?
A QR code is a 2-D barcode that can be scanned by a smart phone's camera and transfer information. Based on the type of code it is, it might direct the viewer to a website, make a phone call, deliver a vCard or more.
How can I market my small business with QR codes?
QR codes are fairly new here in the states (no surprise, they're big in Japan), so many people won't recognize them when they see them or won't have a smart phone with a QR reader installed, which limits their impact. Most current advertisements that use QR codes still have to explain how they work, and the steps the person has to take to access this additional information.
Because of this, you need to determine if QR codes are a good fit for your business and your audience. If you feel there's a place for QR codes in your marketing toolbox, here are some creative suggestions on how you can take advantage of QR codes.
- QR Codes on business cards. OK, not the most creative idea ever. In fact, this is probably the de facto way many businesses use QR codes. Rather than overload a business card with all of your contact info you could include the bare minimum for reaching you, then create a QR code that leads people to your Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Flickr, Plaxo, Yelp, FourSqure, Digg, Delicious, StumbleUpon, Whrrl, and MySpace profiles. Little muss, little fuss.
- Scavenger hunts. Again, for some reason this appears on every  list  of QR code marketing ideas. Probably because scavenger hunts are fun and engaging, although a lot easier to write about than to administer. Still, for destination marketing, a scavenger hunt approach can be a great way to get visitors to check out places they might not otherwise go.
- Labeling. Somewhere, a restaurant patron is enjoying wine from your vineyard. They notice the QR code on the bottle and quickly scan it. That takes them to a mobile site where they can learn more about your wine, your vineyard, and links to where you can buy a case for delivery...all before the check comes.
- Storefront displays. Few retail businesses are open 24/7. Don't (fully) disappoint potential customers after you've left for the day. Create a Shop Online Now! QR code and put it in your storefront window. One quick scan and you've turned a potential lost sale into an online customer who's going to share a lot more of their contact information with you.
- Promotions, discounts and giveaways. If you want to encourage patronage from the iPhone and Android set, you could create discounts that are specific to the QR codes. You could run these codes in advertisements or post them throughout your store. You could even turn them into a "retweet" so that your shoppers share their discount with their followers.
- Laptop stickers. Slap a QR sticker of your vCard or website to your laptop, making it easier for other geeks to connect with you when you're at SXSW  or the local coffee shop.
- T-shirts. Put your QR code on your t-shirt (or parka, in Maine) for some shameless self-promotion. Or, make a bigger impression by printing up 100 t-shirts and put them on 100 interns and have them attend a public event like a ballgame, street fair or campaign stop. For more engagement from the crowd, put different messages on the shirts, so people take more scans of more of your codes.
- Get funky with your QR Code design. QR codes allow a little wiggle room, meaning that you can "hack" the code itself. A famous, early example is the BBC's QR Code. However, you can play around with the QR code once it's been generated in an image editing tool like Photoshop and work in your own logo or brand. Always be sure to test your QR code before printing up a few thousand copies, however.
- Use QR codes to get Likes and Follows. You can create mobile-friendly landing pages with Facebook like buttons or lead them to your Twitter page for a quick follow. The name of the game is engagement, so a like or follow can create a long-term marketing opportunity. Caveat: so far the Like buttons that QR tags generate lead to the Facebook website rather than the mobile app. I don't know about you, but I rarely log into Facebook's website from my phone, so that requires extra steps the average person may not be willing to take.
- Supplement your retail space. QR codes next to pieces of art could help art galleries move more art, or museums replace those aging audio tape tours. Hardware stores could link to how-to videos on YouTube of how to use specific power tools. Groceries could link to pages that talk about how their products were sourced, and perhaps to interviews of the farmers who grew the food. Electronic shops could bring visitors to review sites so they could get unbiased reviews of stocked products. Or to an e-commerce site where shoppers could buy out-of-stock items. Book stores could link to their own reviews of books on their blog.
- Increase e-commerce sales. Since QR codes can lead to URLs, you can create a code that will populate a shopping cart with specific products. (Assuming your e-commerce solution can handle that.)
- Build your email subscriber list. Use your QR code to send people to your email signup. Just make sure you give people a compelling reason to subscribe to your list...otherwise you will have just wasted their time. Not the best way to engage your audience.
- Get the phone ringing. QR codes can also make a phone call. (Oh, imagine the mischief!) If you want to get the phones ringing--at your business or at campaign headquarters--you can create a code that will dial a predetermined number. Likewise, QR codes can generate SMS text messages.
As you can see, there are plenty of ways to use QR codes to connect and engage your audience. QR codes can provide additional information, including photos, reviews, directions and event dates and times. There's a certain amount of fun and surprise with QR Codes, so that you can take advantage of a "what's behind door number one" mentality.
Have you used QR codes in your marketing and communications? If so, how are you using them, and what results have you seen?
Rich Brooks shares thoughts, opinions, and tips on killing zombies on Twitter . Follow that link or just scan this QR.