Today I’m going to show you how you can create a money-saving QR Code that never needs to be replaced or reprinted — even if the original URL no longer exists.

QR Code Art

One of the newest digital marketing tools is the QR Code. A funky concoction that looks more like something you’d find hanging on the wall at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory than on a retail store poster. And although QR Codes can be used just about anywhere to give people more information about your products, they also have an expiration date.

But before we get into how to create a better, longer-lasting QR Code, let’s talk about what they are and how they work.

What is a QR Code

A QR code (or quick response code) is a smartphone readable bar code that can store up to 4296 characters of information in it’s image. Those 4296 characters can represent just about any numeric, alphanumeric, or binary data including;

  • Text
  • Phone number
  • Pre-formatted SMS message (up to 160 characters)
  • Email address
  • VCard

And the predominant use of QR codes is embedding a website address (URL) such as;

  • Ecommerce Landing pages
  • Google Maps Location
  • PayPal Buy Now Links
  • Social Media Profiles
  • iTunes Link
  • YouTube Videos
  • Coupon Pages

Here’s what a sample QR Code looks like.

Tractor Supply Direct Mail Promotion

QR Code used on a Tractor Supply direct mailer directing users to their website.

How A QR Code Works

When a QR code is scanned, it gives quick access to more information. This makes them a great marketing tool because they can be used on printed marketing materials such as magazine and newspaper ads, business cards, flyers, posters, product packaging, coffee cups — just about anywhere you want to give someone more information about your business, product, or services.

In order to use a QR code, you first need to create one.

There are many online services to create QR codes for free. One service I find most helpful is qrstuff.com.

The Problem with QR Codes

Although QR Codes can be a great tool to help promote your business, there are a couple downsides.

    Size v. Readability

    The more information a QR Code needs to store, the more complex and dense the encoded pattern becomes. And the more complex the pattern, the bigger it needs to be for a smartphone to accurately read it.

    This can present a challenge when trying to fit QR Codes on product packaging or promotional materials that have limited space. Think, Augustus Gloop trying to fit through the chocolate tube.

    The complexity of the pattern on a QR Code is dependent on the length of the URL or other information. The more information the code has to store, the smaller and more dense the pattern becomes. This makes it more difficult for a smartphone to read and, of course, limits the size the printed code can be used. I recommend reading this article about testing QR Codes.

    Editing

    A secondary problem with QR codes is that they can’t be edited.

    This limits the lifespan of a QR code and can increase printing costs if the code needs to be recreated because a URL has changed, is no longer active, or relevant to your advertising or promotion.

How To Create A Better QR Code

The first step in creating a better, more readable, and efficient QR code for URLs is to use a shorter URL. One way this can be done by using a URL shortening service such as bitly. An added benefit to using bitly is that you can track how many times a link is clicked or, in the case of a QR Code, how many times the URL is accessed.

Using this article as an example, look at the two QR Codes below.

Sample QR Codes using long and short URLs

Using a shorter URL will give you a smaller and more readable QR Code

The image on the left is a QR Code using the full length, original URL.
http://www.kristofcreative.com/articles/marketing/howto-create-everlasting-qr-codes/

The image on the right is a QR Code using a shorter URL created by bit.ly.
http://bit.ly/nbPE76

As you can see, using a URL shortener is a great solution for creating optimized URLs for creating QR Codes. You can create a more readable code that can be used at smaller sizes. But doesn’t address the problem of not being able to edit a QR code once it’s been created. And if you’ve ever used a QR Code on business cards, in-store posters, or other advertising materials, then you understand why this presents a problem.

How To Create A URL QR Code That Lasts Forever

Since a QR code can’t be edited, the solution is to create a URL redirect (either internally or via your .htaccess file) and then use that URL to create your QR code.

So, instead of creating a QR Code for the original, full length URL, I would create a short URL and redirect it to the original.

The new, short URL
http://www.kristofcreative.com/qrcodes/

redirects to the original article here.
http://www.kristofcreative.com/articles/marketing/howto-create-everlasting-qr-codes/

The QR Code for the shorter URL now looks like this. The original URL (left) v. the shorter URL redirect (right).

Full URL v Short URL Redirect

Original URL (left) CAN NOT be edited v. a shorter URL redirect (right) CAN be edited

Creating a URL redirect allows you to create a shorter URL and, more importantly, change the location of where the code points to. Whether you need to point the QR Code to a different URL on the same domain, to a new promotion, or even to your Facebook page, all you have to do is change the redirect. Viola!

Now you have a QR Code that will last longer than an Everlasting Gobstopper.

If you want to take this one step further, you can using bitly to create an even shorter URL.

Shortened URL for redirects,
http://www.kristofcreative.com/qrcodes/

now becomes,
http://bit.ly/nlC0HQ

This will give you a QR code that can be used at even smaller sizes without sacrificing readability — plus the ability to track clicks from the QR Code.

Bitly compresses shortened URL redirect

QR Code for shortened URL (left) becomes shorter using bitly (right)

But the biggest benefit to using custom URL redirects is the time and money you’ll save from not having to reprint marketing materials and promotional items if a URL changes or a promotion ends.

Here’s a final, side-by-side comparison of the three QR Codes. The original (left), the shorter URL we created for redirects (middle), and the bitly shortened URL (right).

Comparing three QR Codes

Original, full URL (Left). Shorter URL Redirect (middle). And bitly shortened URL (right)

What We’ve Learned

  • A QR Code is a smartphone readable bar code that can store website URL’s, text, and other information.
  • Less complex QR Codes can be used at smaller sizes — providing more versatility of where they can be used.
  • To keep QR Codes as readable as possible, you’ll want to use a short URL.
  • Using a URL shortening service can give you the shortest URL without having to create one yourself.
  • Using a URL redirect to create a QR Code allows you to change the end location at any time.

What do you think? Have you started using QR Codes? How effective have they been for you? Drop a comment and share how and where you’ve been using them.

QR Code Resources
What Size Should A QR Code Be?
Why QR Codes Could Disrupt Your SEO URL Strategy
QR Code Art on Flickr
QR Codes on Mashable