If you're feeling confused about Quick Response (QR) codes, you're not alone.

On the one hand, the mobile technology for decoding these boxy, two-dimensional barcodes has never been more widely available. These ingenious symbols add a digital dimension to physical objects, encoding complicated URLs that users would never attempt to key by hand, whisking them away to any Web destination the marketer chooses.

Yet skeptics point out that decoding a QR code takes effort, and too often the payoff doesn't justify the trouble. They're correct. Slapping a QR code on a handout or a poster is easy, but creating something useful on the other side takes thought and planning.

So what are QR codes good for? Plenty, if you use them wisely. Here are a few examples of what to do and what not to do when incorporating QR codes into your event.

1. DON'T use QR codes if you don't know how they'll add value

A QR code is the real-world equivalent of a clickable link. It is most useful when connecting users to a service they want right at that moment.

Chances are users aren't burning to visit your homepage from the show floor. But they may want to enter a contest, register for an event, or get access to a virtual swag bag (a convenient and environmentally friendly alternative to the notorious conference "bag of brochures").

Remember, convenient as they are, QR codes still require a small time investment. Users need to take out their mobile device, start their app—or download an app that reads QR codes—and then scan the code. That process creates a relatively significant psychological barrier. You need to give people sufficient incentive to overcome it.

2. DON'T use QR codes where there is no Wi-Fi or cellular connection

This should go without saying, but if your event won't have Wi-Fi and the cellular connection is spotty, which is often the case at convention centers and big hotels, you may want to reconsider using QR codes at all.

3. DO provide a mobile event app with a QR-code reader built in

Event-goers are busy running to different sessions and networking with as many people as they can before the end of the day. If you plan to use QR codes at your event, you should know that the latest mobile conference technology has QR code reading built in. And if you needed yet another reason to offer an app for your event, this is it.

Such apps not only provide attendees with maps, schedules, surveys, instant news updates, people finders, and other social features but also offer you a powerful source of real-time intelligence about the performance of your event. When you have hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of people interacting, checking-in and exchanging information with QR codes, you receive a stream of data about your attendees' actions and preferences that you never had before (more on this below).

In short: you should provide a mobile app, and you should make sure it has a QR code reader.

4. DO use QR codes to check people in at your event

The registration and check-in line is your attendees' first experience with your event, and usually one of the worst. Who likes lines? By allowing attendees to print out confirmations with QR codes ahead of time, or even to display check-in codes on their mobile devices, you can have staff roam the line with mobile readers and check people in on the spot, accelerating registration many times over. Again, doing so takes advance planning, but the results more than repay the effort.

Event organizers can watch the progress of their event with real-time knowledge of who and how many people are checking in. If any issues or bottlenecks come up, you'll be aware immediately so that you can address the situation as soon as possible.

5. DO use QR codes to create game-time excitement

By relying on people's natural competitiveness, organizers can use QR codes to drive attendee behavior via "gamification." For instance, they can encourage attendance and participation at sessions by offering prizes for people who check in via QR code. Or they can draw crowds, educate prospects, and qualify leads by offering a prize for attendees who check in at a certain number of sessions.

6. DO use QR codes to measure the value of a handshake

People attend events for two major reasons: to learn and to network. A major frustration for event planners is their inability to track and measure attendee behavior other than session attendance. That is where QR codes are especially helpful.

Event mobile apps allow attendees to exchange contact information with a simple barcode scan. Instead of filling their wallets with business cards that will collect dust back in the office, they can exchange the profile information they provided when they signed up for the event.

From there, marketers and event organizers can analyze the data to see how many contacts were exchanged and how many meetings were set up, giving them a meaningful new way to measure the performance of their event. Similarly, they can track the most commonly downloaded content and who visits which exhibitors. They can evaluate which attendees are the most avid networkers (potentially contacting them with special offers for next year), and which exhibitors on which parts of the floor are attracting the most attention.

Best of all, they can use such information to improve the next event and ensure that key attendees and exhibitors keep coming back.

* * *

In sum, QR codes are one of the most powerful tools marketers have for bridging the divide between the face-to-face world and the digital. You'll be able to analyze the ROI of your event with a precision previously available only with online campaigns. It takes planning, but the rewards are as real as your bottom line.

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image of Eric Olson

Eric Olson is general manager, SMB, at Active Network, responsible for driving the global strategy for the technology company’s events solution.

Twitter: @Eric_Ols