You may have already seen QR codes—those funny-looking, square barcodes—on direct mail pieces or advertisements around the tube.

With the ubitiquious uptake of smartphones, more businesses are using QR codes as part of their marketing and communications. But what are QR codes, how do you create them, and how can you use them to better market your own small business?

A Quick Response (QR) code is a two-dimensional code that can be scanned by smartphone cameras to automatically pull up text, photos, videos, music and URLs. These codes have become mobile-friendly way to display text, contact information, connect to a wireless network or open a web page in your phone’s browser.

How to generate a QR code

There are plenty of sites that will allow you to create QR codes for free. You just need to provide the URL you want to send people to, the message you want to share, or whatever other information you’d like to put into the QR code. Consider starting first with Kaywa, iCandy or Stickybits.

How to use QR codes

One of the most effective uses of QR Codes is via video. The key is to create a short video (under three minutes) about your product or service or some useful information, then post the video on your website, YouTube and Facebook and link a QR code to it that brings the visitor to the video.

Once you’ve created a code, you can then easily link it to a video, your website or a podcast. Once you know where you want to send your potential clients, the next step is to promote it.

Integrate in all your marketing touch points

Have your QR code appear in multiple touch points – Facebook, website, print media, tradeshow materials, business cards – and integrate them so that they deliver the user to a landing page with a consistent message, incentive or offer. Or use different QR codes for each medium and track visitors to discover which is most effective for this type of marketing.

Offer freebies

If you really want people to pay attention to your QR codes, why not use them to offer discounts or promotions. For example, say you’ve used a QR code in your store window, why not reward those who scan it with 10% off their purchase or a free pastry?

Give them something small to thank them for their patronage. Simply create a custom QR code for the freebie you want to offer. You could even get creative and hide the QR code offers online, like on your Facebook page or website, or somewhere inside your store.

Should you use QR codes?

  1.  Mobility, mobility, mobility. People are incredibly mobile today. They are also impatient and constantly rushing. QR codes let people quickly scan something that peaks their interest, and later consume it in detail. It’s unlikely you’ll find many people stopping to write down a website address or phone number from an advertisement they see in public.
  2.  It’s free. There are many QR code generators to choose from, and most are free. Do a search on Google, and download an app.
  3.  Branding. You can brand your QR code. A famous, early example is the BBC’s QR Code. However, you can play around with the QR code once it’s been generated in an image editing tool like Photoshop and work in your own logo or brand. Always be sure to test your QR code before printing up a few thousand copies, however.
  4.  Bringing offline business online. There is more reason to use QR codes if your business is largely offline, or to use it on offline materials.

If you’re going to use QR codes for small business marketing, you’ll want to keep in mind that QR codes — and the apps that scan them — are still foreign to most people. Yes, more and more people are starting to associate the codes with action, but never assume your customers will know what to do.

Make it a point to spell out how to scan the QR code, and help instruct customers on where they can grab scanner apps. Still feeling a bit shy about bringing QR codes into your marketing mix? Get your feet wet by using one yourself.