The Best Digital-to-Real-Life Integration Resources for Your Campaign

April 26, 2011

There's a conversation happening online right now. A lot of people seem to think the question being asked is "Should I use QR codes and, if so, how should I use them?" I'd like to amend that question in your mind a little bit.

There’s a conversation happening online right now. A lot of people seem to think the question being asked is “Should I use QR codes and, if so, how should I use them?” I’d like to amend that question in your mind a little bit. Trends are showing an increase in QR code use (increase of 1200% from July to December of 2010) and I believe the trend will continue for similar resources in the coming years.

This isn’t simply about creating a unique bright spot in your campaign anymore, this is about learning to connect all the points of light your customers have already set up in their lives with your message. The question we should be asking ourselves instead of “Should I use matrix barcodes” is the following:

Which digital-to-real-life integration resource is best for my business or campaign?

The trends are there, people are looking for quick, easy, efficient ways to integrate their physical and digital lives. More and more people have smart phones, with the number growing each quarter, and more individuals are spending time online building profiles and creating virtual “realities” for themselves on the World Wide Web. When companies can find  creative ways to implement and use emerging technologies, you can start to create experiences with your customers as opposed to simple interactions.

I’m going to dissect three of the major players in the race for your digital attention: QR (Quick Response) codes, Microsoft Tags, and NFC (Near-Field Communication) Technology. I’ll also include pros and cons of each so you can follow along and see which avenue might be right for your campaign.

QR Codes

QR codes were created in Japan to keep track of vehicle parts and have since been used to work as scannable URLs on smart phones via QR scanners. Most smart phone QR readers are available as free downloads and creating QR codes is quick and easy. They look like this:

QR codes are easily re-sizable and have already been adopted by over 22% of Fortune 500 companies for their advertising and marketing campaigns. One thing a lot of advocates against QR codes have an issue with is the fact that destinations are locked once created and assigned to a code. QR codes are most often used to transfer contact information, drive traffic to special offers, present unique QR content to mobile customers, and to drive traffic from display ads to websites.

When using QR codes, be sure to optimize your landing page, keeping in mind almost all users will be viewing it on a phone. Keep your information short and to-the-point and, when possible, create specific content just for your QR codes. Set up systems for tracking the code usage and in your promotional copy, explain the purpose of the QR placement and the desired user action.


  • Easily recognizable (52% of Americans have heard of or seen QR Codes)
  • Free to create
  • Quickly scanned
  • Trackable results
  • You can scan them even without an Internet connection
  • Multiple QR code readers exist on the market


  • Locked destinations
  • Multiple steps for users
  • Not everyone has smart phones
  • Usually very little payoff for the user
  • QR codes get bigger as you add information
  • Harder to track over time unless code leads directly to a website

Microsoft Tags

While Microsoft Tags work in a very similar way to QR codes, they have some distinct features that set them apart from their Japanese counterpart. The first thing you’ll notice is their appearance. The Tag below goes to the same destination as the QR code above, notice the subtle differences:

Microsoft Tags are seen as the new kid on the block but they’ve already garnered a large following because of some of the addition options they offer that QR codes do not. One of the main upsides is the fact that you can change the destination to any Tag you manage at any time. That means if you’re working on an extended campaign (or published material) and you want your code to be fluid over a long period of time, Microsoft Tags are probably for you. Also, while QR codes are customizable, because Tags use color, it’s much easier to integrate them into your materials.

Optimization and payoff strategies need to be put in place with Microsoft Tags just like QR codes, but here’s a list of some more pros and cons:


  • Free to create
  • Fewer size restrictions than QR codes
  • Changeable destinations
  • Internet-required scanning allows for better analysis of ROI
  • Highly customizable to match campaign
  • Fast and easier for phones to read and can be scanned on all major phone operating systems


  • Not as recognizable as QR codes
  • Do not support Japanese text
  • Doesn’t support all the functionality that QR codes do
  • User must have an Internet connection to scan
  • Not as wide a selection of Tag readers available
  • Still required multiple steps for users

NFC Technology

There’s a good chance you aren’t as familiar with NFC technology as the previous two choices. NFC is the up-and-comer and have a lot of people switching teams on how the future of digital to physical integration may play out. NFC, at it’s core, is simply an automatic information transfer between an electronic device and an encoded chip. While the functionality between QR, Tags and NFC are similar, the major benefit of NFC technology is the ease of use for the user. Any equipped device that’s waved within 4 inches of an NFC code immediately receives the information. Think of a key fob for remote-less entry to a door or car.

The major downside to NFC technology is the expense for phone and chip manufacturers and the simple fact that’s it’s not readily available on all smart phones yet; although, it is rumored that the new iPhone 5 will come equipped with NFC capabilities and recently, Google abandoned QR codes and became a principal member of the NFC Forum.


  • Incredibly easy for user
  • Quick download of information
  • Multiple possibilities of use
  • Being picked up by large tech companies like Apple and Google
  • Can be used both to read and send information


  • Not as secure yet as QR or Tag technology
  • Not readily available or recognized by consumers yet
  • Expensive for companies to implement
  • Currently not a huge market for use
  • Information can be manipulated by outside parties


So, what’s right for your campaign? It will really depend on what exactly you want to accomplish. Just remember to always make the payoff worth it for the user. More and more often I see companies simply use codes and Tags as another way to send people to a boring landing page. You should be trying to create experiences for your users, making them remember you and your message.

As for me, I prefer to use Microsoft Tags because of the added options for customization. Having said that, I think the trend is shifting towards NFC technology and wouldn’t be surprised if that is the default within a few years.

Have you used any of these technologies yet? Do you have thoughts of their effectiveness?

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