Get Smart About QR Codes

By Diane Baedeker Petit

Bar codes have become ubiquitous in daily life, especially in retail sales. Now that checkout scanners are standard equipment in supermarkets and self-scan wands are available for customer use in some stores, most products must bear a bar code.

A new kind of code is now making inroads into consumer consciousness: the Quick Response, or QR, code. The QR code is a square matrix of pixel-like patterns. First designed for the automotive industry, the QR system has become popular in other sectors due to its fast readability and comparatively large storage capacity.

QR codes, which are popping up in advertising and informational media, can be scanned with a smartphone, using one of many available apps, to bring up additional content like a Web page, a video or a text file.

Last summer, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) kicked off an advertising campaign aimed at steering MBTA commuters to local farms, farmers' markets, agricultural fairs, pick-your-own orchards and aquaculture sites.

The ads, which ran on subway cars from mid-August until mid-October, incorporated a QR code that directed users to the agency's MassGrown & Fresher website, a portal for Massachusetts agriculture information. The site has an interactive map that draws from the MDAR's database of agritourism destinations. For those who don't have a smartphone, the MassGrown & Fresher website address was also displayed on the ads.

The QR codes featured in the ads were integrated into farm-themed designs such as the spots on a Holstein cow.

"This is an excellent opportunity to connect people via public transportation to the various farmers' markets and agricultural spots throughout the Commonwealth," said MBTA Acting General Manager Jon Davis in a news release.

"We hope that every rider on the T will get to know all of our state's agricultural go-to places," said MDAR Commissioner Scott Soares, who says that the MDAR plans to expand its campaign with the MBTA in 2012.

The MDAR is the first state department of agriculture to incorporate a QR code into its outreach material, with the first one appearing on its 2011 agricultural fairs brochure.

It's hard to know whether U.S. farms are adopting QR codes in their advertising. Having started in Japan, the use of QR codes spread first to Europe, so it's not surprising that a Google search to find agricultural uses of QR codes mostly turns up European sites.

The advantages of using QR codes in advertising and informational materials are that they add interactivity to traditional advertising and can help deliver much more content than can fit on a physical page.

With a little creativity, farmers involved in agritourism might find fun and educational uses for QR codes around the farm. For example, using QR codes to deliver clues to help visitors with smartphones navigate a corn maze.

It's free and easy to create a QR code via one of many websites. Users enter a URL or text, and with a click a QR code is generated, which can then be printed out or saved as a graphic file in a standard format like JPEG or GIF. The saved graphic can later be incorporated into a layout for an ad, newsletter or the like.

The limitation of QR codes, of course, is that not everyone has a smartphone, and even those who do may not be aware of what those funny codes are, how to use them or what they'll get if they scan them. I've even heard people who do know what QR codes are say that they are hesitant to scan them because they're suspicious that the advertiser will somehow have access to personal information on their phone or be able to track their whereabouts or habits.

According to online sources, scanning a QR code is pretty much the same as entering a URL on your computer. Certain data is recorded when you visit any website, and the site's administrators likely use software to analyze that data in order to learn about their users in the aggregate. They know things like what browsers most visitors are using, which pages are most popular, and what days and time of day see the most visitors. If you access the site by scanning a QR code with a smartphone, that information is also registered.

So, should you start using QR codes? There's no good reason not to; it's easy, and it doesn't have to cost anything extra. You'll look progressive to customers with an interest in technology, and you'll deliver more information about your farm and products to those techies. Just don't forget about your non-techie customers.

The author, a freelance writer, is public affairs specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amherst, Mass., and was previously director of communications at the Mass. Dept. of Food & Agriculture.