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QR or Tag?

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Contributed by Ron Marcus, ZUZA Marketing Cheerleader

I was recently on a business trip, reading the in-flight magazine, when I came across an ad for a new Bose Bluetooth earphone. The ad contained a 2D barcode to scan for more information.

ZUZA | Marketing Asset Management home page

Now of course I am familiar with QR codes, (QR meaning “Quick Response”), a well-known type of 2D barcode. The QR code was invented by Toyota’s Denso Wave division in 1994. After gaining full adoption in Japan, QR codes made their way around the world and eventually to the States, where we can now see them all over the place – on signs, product packaging, ads and more.

Thanks to the proliferation of smart phones with camera scanners and apps which can scan QR codes, these codes have become a standard marketing tool. Almost everyone is carrying a smart phone, and prospective customers can be reached wherever they are with targeted marketing through QR codes.

Back to the ad in the in-flight magazine. I whipped out my cell phone and attempted to scan the code with my Android app, QR Droid. But nothing happened. Then I realized this was no ordinary QR code. It looked different — something like this:

Microsoft Tag for ZUZA | Marketing Asset Management Website

I quickly gave up on scanning the code. A couple of days later, I was reading the hotel-supplied copy of USA Today when I came across another ad with a similar looking code. Now I had to find out what this strange new code was. I did some quick research and learned that this is actually an alternative to the QR code, created by Microsoft, called a Tag.

Ever curious, I downloaded the Microsoft Tag app to my Android phone and scanned the code. Voila! I was instantly taken to a website in my phone’s browser.

This led me to wonder: is the Microsoft Tag the future of 2D barcodes? On its surface, it sure looks like an advance. Notably, it’s darn colorful, in a way that QR codes have not been; QR codes are usually black and white and a random collection of little squares that can easily interfere with an otherwise beautiful graphic design of an ad, poster or product package.

So I did some research online. I perused the numerous blogs and forums comparing Tags and QR codes. I read the official Microsoft Tag website for the full marketing pitch from Microsoft, including a fancy little video. I even tried out the Tag Manager to create my own tag (shown above; this one links to, where else, the ZUZA website home page).

All fun stuff. But, at the end of the day, the differences between the two are slight, in my view. Here is my quick compare and contrast:

  • Functionality: both accomplish the same thing: compress a URL, vCard or other information into a scannable square which can send your mobile phone browser to specific information, promotions and more.
  • Ease of use: generating either type of code is as easy as visiting a code-generating site (there are many for QR, only one for Microsoft Tags), typing in what you want a code to point to, then hitting the “generate” button to download your code. Piece of cake.
  • Analytics: Both Microsoft and many QR service providers offer you analytics of code scan rates and usage so you can measure the effectiveness of your code-based marketing campaigns.
  • Aesthetics: for now, Tags win. You can more easily customize Tags to feature custom artwork, such as your logo. Tags are four-color, QR codes aren’t. For designers, Tags are preferable at this point.
  • Open Standard: Microsoft Tags are…Microsoft’s. While they’re free to generate and use today (to speed up adoption), Microsoft will likely charge a fee in the future, and that’s important to keep in mind. QR code technology is owned by Denso Wave, but is freely licensed without restriction and there is no indication that this will change. So you may be safer standardizing on QR.
  • Adoption: QR codes have been around since 1994. Tags are a little more than two years old. QR code technology is freely licensed. Tag technology isn’t. There are QR code reading apps galore for several smart phone platforms. There is exactly one app for reading Microsoft Tags. Today people are used to seeing QR codes, likely have a QR reader on their phones, and are used to scanning the codes. Not so with Tags — witness my experience described above. How many people will go to the trouble to research then download the proper app just to scan a pretty Tag? From an adoption standpoint, QR codes are light years ahead.

Keep in mind, Microsoft is a huge company with lots of cash. If it wanted to force the issue, it could put its considerable financial and marketing might behind the Tag to make it more popular. If that day comes, and if the public adopts it, then as marketers, we should take another look at including Tags in our marketing tool box.

And, there’s nothing wrong with using Tags today. You’ll just limit the number of people who will access your Tagged content.

With QR codes on the other hand, you’ve got access to a much broader audience today. If that is what matters most to you, then in my opinion QR codes are the way to go for now.