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updated 4/22/2011 3:17:12 AM ET 2011-04-22T07:17:12

We all use bar codes to buy things. Now small businesses may be able to use them to sell things.

For pure techno hip factor, it’s tough to beat quick response codes. Known as QR codes, these bizarre-looking, black-and-white gridded squares are actually straightforward: They render information in a way that digital devices can easily understand. I like to think of QR codes as physical hyperlinks -- like barcodes on the side of most products -- that connect names, numbers, and other data to physical objects using the camera on a smart phone or other portable device.

QR codes are popping up not only at hipster events like the annual South by Southwest music and digital conference and festival in Austin, Texas, but also in mainstream corporate marketing. TAG Heuer, Macy’s, and the car-maker MINI now sell using QR codes. Some uses seem rather mundane: Retail giant Sears went as far as to place QR codes in a recent mass-market tool catalogue

Until recently, it was difficult for small firms to use bar codes as big firms do -- to connect promotions, company information, calls to action and other marketing tools to business cards, flyers, signage and other business collateral. Scanning, creating and matching the back-end digital infrastructure of QR codes was a complex and expensive proposition.

No more.

Now several QR code vendors are offering sophisticated scanning tools, content-creation systems and even integrated marketing platforms any small shop can use to improve how it communicates with customers by linking the "virtual" and "real" worlds.

Because I am looking at using QR codes in my firm to connect my company’s marketing materials, contact information and content portfolio to my business cards and Web assets, I have been testing many of these tools. Here are the best, in my view, of three types of QR code tools to consider.

1. RedLaser (free)
What it is: This is probably the most fully featured app-based barcode reader on the market. RedLaser, which was acquired by eBay Inc. in 2010 from a Boulder, Colo.-based app development firm Occipital, as a means to drive usage of the retail giant's online market, installs easily on most any Android or Apple OS smart phones. Once installed, the app -- which has more than 9 million downloads -- translates QR codes and most every form of barcode on the market into information that can be shared and compared.

Why you might like it: RedLaser is simple to install and use, and allows for a slew of tasks from searching for related business components to buy online to testing your QR marketing campaigns. These tasks are likely to be easy for a typical business owner. The tool can be especially handy for comparing prices when shopping for business supplies.

Why you might not: RedLaser is a scanning tool only. It does not help you create QR codes from your data. You will need other software for that. And RedLaser’s dozens of functions can be a bit overwhelming. Some patience is required to learn to use it properly.

2. QR Generator (free)
What it is:QR Generator is an easy-to-use, well-designed online QR code-creation software application. It takes company information like names, addresses and websites and turns it into a gridded QR code that can be tracked. There are many similar QR code creators on the market such as Qurify and Kaywa, but the QR Generator, Slovenia-based Avivo, is by far the most elegant and the easiest to use as of now.

Why you might like it: QR Generator allows just about anybody to turn basic company data into a QR code that can be injected into company marketing. The layout of the Web-based service is clean, the types of data it can manage are what most small firms will want to include, and some simple tracking functions can show who scanned a code and from about where on Earth. If you are new to QR code creation, start with QR Generator.

Why you might not: The code’s simplicity is also its downfall. You must choose from a limited pull-down menu of what can be encoded into a given QR code, which limits functionality to information like names and numbers. If you want more sophisticated marketing options, this product is not for you. Note: The website runs best on Windows Explorer in my testing.

3. ShareSquare
(Basic service: free; a pro package, with advanced features: $99 a month; an enterprise package with more features and access to Internet ad networks: $499 a month)

What it is:ShareSquare is a Web-based, QR code management tool that seeks to combine the creation and publication of QR codes with company content. The tool supports videos, downloadable files, biographical information and many other features and then serves up this information live on the mobile Web for free.

Why you might like it: ShareSquare offers an easy on-ramp for sophisticated marketing with QR codes. Simply log in, create a free account and start uploading company content. In about 20 minutes, you can have a functioning QR code-based marketing campaign. The rendered code, which can work on printed marketing materials and the Web, links not just to simple names and information, but company brochures, Facebook feeds, Twitter content and promotional campaigns. You can even run a contest with the tool. What's more, the analytics on the service accurately track the consumption of ShareSquare content. I saw right away that my test QR code was seen by five unique visitors and viewed 18 times. Impressive.

Why you might not: ShareSquare requires that an ugly black-and-white design be prominently displayed in your business identity, and not off, out of the way as is possible with simpler QR tools. This QR code is not only utterly meaningless to the vast majority of customers, it is potentially alienating. The unknowing will clearly think it is a mistake.

What to do: When marketing with QR codes, businesses will want to be clear to customers that the code adds value. And please keep in mind, only customers with properly enabled smart phones can use QR codes. So be sure your customers are in this niche, and ready for the concept of QR codes.

Considering the movement toward lower cost, ease of use and marketing potential for QR codes, it’s certainly worth an hour or two of your time to download any of these apps, scan some bar codes, create some simple QR codes and try a small campaign. Assuming you keep that test limited, whatever QR code weirdness factor that might emerge will be minimized.

Just remember, QR marketing is right in the middle of a classic Web hype cycle with its claims wildly overstated by proponents. Like all marketing, it must be treated as a trial-and-error affair. Move slowly, and if you are not seeing results, drop it.

Copyright © 2013 Entrepreneur.com, Inc.

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