Scan Me, Baby.

What’s this article about?

2D Barcode Integration & Execution Tips for Print Advertising

Normally, this expertise and my experience in the space is reserved for paying clients. But today, I’m publishing a no-frills, five-minute guide to integration and execution of 2D barcodes (also called QR Codes*) into static print advertising. Why? Because this technology keeps print relevant in the digital age, and it physically pains me to see it botched so frequently. So, PLEASE, please, please… I implore you to share this post with everyone who you think will find it useful.

Step I: Planning

  1. What are the goals for this advertisement? Support sales? Build brand equity? Promote a special event (like a weekend sale)?
  2. What are the metrics through which you will measure success? Increased sales? Increased traffic to your website? Better results on market research surveys? Higher Klout/social influence score?
  3. What will your 2D barcode do? Download a contact card into the phone? Link to a video? Link to a website? Action through a social network’s API? Bake you a pie? (just kidding, they can’t do this… yet).
  4. Perhaps most importantly… why do you want to use a 2D barcode in your advertisement anyway? Because everyone else is (a very bad reason)? To (finally!) be able to attach a firm ROI to your print ad campaigns? To drive customer engagement? To innovate and keep your brand fresh?

Write the answer to each question down. Right now. Seriously, get a pen and paper (or open up notepad, if that’s your bag).

Step II: Design

2D barcodes are ugly. Well, not so much ugly as aesthetically uninspiring. But that’s just the nature of the beast… and including one in your advert provides benefits that far outweigh any loss in aesthetics. Plus, consumers don’t care… really, they don’t. Adding a 2D barcode to an advert is adding an element of mystery to the consumer experience- a mystery which can be easily solved… by scanning the barcode. Research by Neilsen conducted in 2010 found that 5-7% of all smartphone owners scanned 2D barcodes in advertisements, and also followed the action through the goal funnel. That was in 2010, and the technology is much more ‘in the mix’ today. Most phones come with barcode scanners pre-installed, and the user rate continues to increase steadily (smartphone ownership in Canada increases about 10% year-over-year, and 2D barcode usage proportionally with it).

Considerations for advert design:

  1. Never make your 2D barcode smaller than 1.5 inches on either side (and it must be a square, unless you’re using HEM’s ShotCode)! Phone cameras with lower resolutions or cheap image sensors won’t reliably read them. Yes, smaller barcodes can be read by higher-end phones nearly all of the time… but are you marketing your products exclusively to the owners of the iPhone 4, BlackBerry Torch, or Samsung Galaxy SII at the expense of all other smartphone owners? Yes, technology will improve over time… but you’re living and selling in the right now. If your customers can’t access the additional content, they may discard the advert’s message (costing you a chance at conversion). Tech-savvy prospective customers may write you off completely, considering an improperly executed barcode advert a statement against your credibility (“Man, this company is worth how much and they can’t get a barcode ad right? I wonder if there’s lead in the paint too…”)
  2. Never embed a 2D barcode in an advert which will run on newsprint. Newsprint rarely presents a sharp enough image for all of the edges of a 2D barcode to be clear enough for a phone’s sensor to read properly. Newsprint also smudges, and is prone to errors such as ink blotting and minute tearing during production. If you absolutely must embed a 2D barcode in a newsprint advert, then overcompensate. Make your barcode larger than normal- 2.5 inches or more per side.
  3. What’s the size of your ad slot? Smaller ad slots will be eaten up by a 1.5″ square barcode, and you do still want to retain the aesthetic balance of your ad layout. If you want a 2D barcode and some semblance of a coherent CTA and marketing message, then don’t buy smaller than a quarter page for a barcode-enhanced advert.
  4. Placement, placement, placement. This one drives me nuts. Think about where your ad slot is in relation to the physical barriers of the medium it’s going in. For instance, is your ad on a front-facing page in a magazine? Then you don’t want your barcode on the far left of the page (the binding may obscure part of the code, or, cast a shadow over it- thus forcing the camera flash to fire, which will obscure part of the code due to the light reflection from the glossy paper). Is it on a back-facing page? Then you don’t want it on the far right for the same reasons. Not sure which page your slot will run on? Play it safe- embed your barcode in the bottom-middle of your design.

Step III: Metrics and Content

Always have a system of metrics in place to track your advert’s performance! At the very least, you want to be able to track the traffic count to the page where your enhanced content is located (if your strategy for the advert includes additional content). Ideally, you want to also be able to track time-on-page, bounce rate, conversion rate (if you have a specific sales or other goal funnel as part of your strategy), geolocation (can be iffy to collect because mobile devices aren’t assigned IP addresses, but still worth trying since they’ll register an IP and location if connected via WiFi), and social share rate (the percentage of users who ‘share’ your content to social networks via embedded action buttons).

Always have a game plan for page content (unless your goal is to simply download a contact card/vCard/iCard into the user’s phone). Please, don’t just use your homepage. Prospective customers who scan a 2D barcode are taking a step to stop what they’re doing and give you their full attention. And trust me, during this process you have their full attention. They want to be wowed. Give them some content that meets this expectation. Video is great (if well-developed and of decent production quality- and yes, ‘social’ videos can and should still have these qualities). A flash presentation isn’t so great (it looks pretty on your PC at home, but many mobile devices don’t yet support flash natively- and few users will bother to download a flash player to compensate).

  1. Involve your IT people (outside consultant, web designer, hosting service, whomever is the architect and mechanic of your online presence); set clear expectations for the metrics you want to track, and design/implement the proper systems to do so if you haven’t already (before you even finalize your media buy for this initiative).
  2. Integrate social sharing actionables (‘Like’ button, ‘Tweet This’, ‘Digg It’, eMail, whatever). You paid for the initial contact with this customer, and you should definitely give them the opportunity to advertise for you by turning them into brand ambassadors- this will lower your overall cost of acquisition. How do you do this? Read the next step.
  3. Create some great content. This was mentioned above, and because it’s so important it will be mentioned again: after the prospective customers scan your barcode, you have their full attention. Hold it, and use it!

Step IV: Go Do It

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Don’t be afraid to push the envelope. Don’t be afraid to engage with your customers and prospective customers on an intimate, social level. Social media has and will continue to have a disruptive effect on traditional marketing and on the way that we carry out CRM and CMR in business (Customer Relationship Management and Customer-Managed Relationships). But; don’t fall for buzzwords, fads, and clichés like “catch the wave.” Learn how to best use these tools for your business. You know your business better than anyone else, and you know what your customers want and what they’ll respond to- both positively and negatively. So, go do it.

For the sake of my sanity, please share this post with everyone who you think can benefit from it. Especially the people at Dior, Tag Heuer, Armani Exchange, Alexander Keith’s, and General Motors. They’ve all missed the boat on integration and/or execution of something in the above article at least once in the past six months.

* “QR Code”, “QRCode”, and “Quick Response Code” are trademarks of Denso-Wave, Inc.

Join the Conversation


  1. Great article, one other thing that bugs me is when QR codes link to non-mobile content. Most people aren’t using their laptop to scan a code!

    1. You’re absolutely right, Will. That’s a big pet peeve for me too- the mobile optimization space is underserved right now. Whoever comes up with a tool to automatically optimize websites for mobile first will win big.

      Unless they act like every other internet technologies company out there and don’t actually develop a revenue model (coughcoughTwittercough). But, that’s a gripe for another day.

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