QR codes. It seems as if these square, black and white patterned codes are appearing everywhere now – on billboards and advertising signage, in retail stores, on Web sites, and even on TV. The QR code is being touted as the latest and greatest marketing tool, and it is also garnering serious interest from the marketing research industry for its potential to expand mobile research capabilities.

The recent success of the QR code can be attributed to its ability to deliver targeted mobile content to users from virtually anywhere. By scanning a QR code with a mobile phone, users are immediately directed to a Web page, provided contact or product details, sent an SMS or e-mail message, or even sent a PayPal link for mobile purchasing. The new opportunities to connect with consumers via QR codes are vast, and companies are taking advantage in numerous ways. Retail stores and restaurants recruit for feedback and offer promotions in real-time as their establishments are being patronized. Magazine and signage advertising provides readers with ready access to additional product information. Business cards direct prospects to the company Web site without ever having to type in a URL.

For those who have yet to join the QR code bandwagon, here is some background information. QR codes were developed by a subsidiary of Toyota in the mid-1990s, initially for the purposes of tracking parts in vehicle manufacturing. The codes consist of two-dimensional black modules against a white background. Unique QR codes can be created quickly and easily using one of the numerous QR code generator Web sites, and are typically provided at no cost. To scan a QR code using a mobile phone, a QR code reader app must be installed to work in conjunction with the phone’s camera. Today several free or nominal cost QR code reader apps are available for download on a variety of mobile devices.

Because of their broad applicability, QR codes have been used for advertising and marketing initiatives in Japan for many years, and are now rapidly gaining popularity throughout other regions of the world. According to a March report by Mobio, QR code scanning grew a whopping 1,200 percent in North America between July and December of last year. This kind of usage indicates that QR codes will soon be a mainstream component of marketing in the U.S., and a natural extension of QR code usage in marketing is of course marketing research.

For an industry that is already experiencing a shift in which mobile research solutions are increasingly in demand, QR codes offer considerable promise. QR codes enable a means to track ad effectiveness for media that are typically difficult to measure, such a print and signage advertising. They offer a way to recruit and register new panelists, particularly those in mobile-centric demographics that can be difficult to recruit through traditional channels. Perhaps most significantly, QR codes enable a near limitless reach for mobile survey delivery.

Researchers fully recognize the value of mobile surveys. Mobile surveys enable feedback to be captured in real-time, thus offering more immediate – and in many cases, more reliable – response data. Mobile surveys also provide the ultimate flexibility to research participants who can decide to complete surveys whenever and wherever they choose, thereby improving response rates. Yet a significant challenge has remained for mobile research – how to optimally deliver the mobile survey invitation. This delivery challenge extends not only registered panelists, but to the general public as well. Often companies desire to capture experience feedback in the moment, but have no way to target the potential respondents. Without knowing each person’s mobile phone number or e-mail address, an SMS or e-mail survey invitation cannot be sent. In these situations, QR codes are an excellent option. By displaying survey invitation signage with a QR code that links directly to the mobile survey, respondents can quickly and easily participate in the research initiative. They simply take a picture of a displayed QR code with their camera phone, and the mobile survey is instantly triggered.

QR code survey invitations offer other advantages over SMS and e-mail survey invitations as well. For SMS invitations, sizeable per-usage fees may be included, and it can sometimes take up to six weeks to obtain a short code. E-mail invitations require that mobile users have e-mail access on their phones, and even for those who do, there is no way to ensure they will open the e-mail invitation using their phones. If they access the survey at a later time from their PC at home, the potential for real-time data collection is lost. QR code surveys, on the other hand, entail relatively low expenses and ensure the survey is accessed in the moment. Of course the implementation of QR code surveys first requires that research participants have a QR code reader/scanner app installed on their mobile device, but recent data suggests that a sizeable number of smartphone users either already do or soon will. A March study by MGH found that 32 percent of surveyed smartphone users indicated that they have used a QR code before, and 70 percent said that they plan to use a QR code again or for the first time.These percentages will likely increase as more and more consumers are introduced to QR codes through signage, promotions, Web sites and TV.

Clearly QR codes have the potential to vastly expand the reach of mobile marketing research. This technology has already been incorporated into some mobile research software solutions, and more are likely to follow. The marketing research industry has the opportunity to leverage QR codes to improve its research methodologies, and reach a broader and more diverse sample than ever before. Virtually every market research agency has a client – in sectors such as retail, automotive, travel/tourism – that can take advantage of QR codes immediately and begin building expertise in mobile surveys that support respondents anytime and anywhere.