Consumers in Japan are used to seeing fuzzy little code boxes on just about everything—advertising posters in subway stations, McDonald's sandwich wrappers, beverage packaging, receipts, T-shirt tags, and building facades. The code technology—known as QR, or quick response—acts like a gateway allowing anyone with a camera phone to easily step between the digital and physical worlds.

A quick scan of the code instantly connects to nutrition information, special offers, exclusive content, price quotes, or even the ability to make a hair-cut appointment or save contact information.

QR codes and similar 2-D tag technology have been slower to catch on in America. However, marketing professionals say the question isn't whether the codes will reach the level of ubiquity found in Japan; rather, it's how quickly will they be a part of every day life, like reading a URL address.

"They are hiding in plain sight," says B.L. Ochman, managing director of emerging media at Proof Integrated Communications. "Once you start looking, you're going to see them on your shampoo, on your bill, in theaters. All kinds of companies are using them."

The technology is simple to use, comes at little additional cost for your company and requires no special hardware. Done properly, devoting a tiny square of your packaging or ad to a code can open up a different spectrum of interaction with current and potential customers. It goes beyond the realm of traditional advertising to incorporate audio and video elements—and a sense of fun that turns advertising from a passive experience to an interactive game.

"We have a great story to tell about the brand," says Therese Bird McGuire, interactive marketing manager for  Bonterra Vineyards, which is based in Louisville, Kentucky, and which started using Microsoft Tags on its packaging and advertising this summer. "Ads just didn't give us enough space to tell the whole story. We're using the tags to help supplement them."

In the future, industry experts predict Americans will be able to pay for a bus ride, buy a can of soda, and board an airplane all through the use of phones with built-in code-readers.

For now, smart companies are using them to break the wall of interaction with customers. Keep these tips in mind when trying it for yourself:

Using QR Codes to Market Your Business: Creating a Code

Several different types of codes are available in the market, though they all behave in similar ways. QR codes are becoming more prevalent, but some companies choose Microsoft Tags or other 2-D code programs. JAGTAG works without a special reader by letting users text message a picture of a tag to a specific number.

Whatever tag format you choose, it won't cost much: most can be created for free through programs like Google's free QR code creator. Just enter the link you want to send users to and the generator will spit out a tag you can easily copy and distribute.

Free code-reader applications can be downloaded to any smart phone. About 82 percent of phones on the market today have camera abilities, and the number will grow closer to 100 percent in the near future, Ochman says.

Once you have a tag, put it on just about anything: packaging, ads, posters, billboards, business cards, signage, stickers, and your website. Bonterra Vineyards includes tags on its wine bottles; Ed Jordan, CEO of JAGTAG, says he sees them in New York City on bus shelters, phone kiosks, drug store signage, cocktail napkins and sporting venues.

The more places they appear, the people are getting used to the easy transition between the physical and digital worlds.

"Even if you battle and get shelf space, you really need to differentiate yourself," says Jerry Whiting, president and CEO of Azalea Software, which makes the QRdvark reader for iPhone and Android. "As long as you're printing packaging, why not put a QR on it?"

The key is to be ready on the other end of the code with some content that actually intrigues the user, and makes them get out their phone and scan.

Using QR Codes to Market Your Business: What Content to Offer

A QR code or other 2-D tag can link to just about anything. But whatever content you send back to user must be something worthwhile. "You need to interact with people in a way that's going to be interesting and fun," Ochman says.

McGuire says consumers don't want to be bombarded with more brand information or plain advertising. Customers who scan the Microsoft Tag on a Bonterra bottle may be greeted with a recipe, a pairing suggestion, a coupon, or a holiday video message.

"It's just up to the brand to be as creative as the want to be with the tag," she says. "Then, actually give consumers information that would enrich every day life."

Jordan says some companies he's worked with send slideshows or sweepstakes entries back to users, while clothing companies will send fashion tips.

"Anything really that can be presented in a digital or image format can be returned back to the consumer," he says.

The codes can be formatted specifically for contact information so that someone's phone number and e-mail address are immediately added to your contacts. In Japan, foods commonly link to nutritional information or cooking tips. Sports Illustrated used a JAGTAG in its swimsuit issue to link to outtakes from the photo shoot—which became a big hit with readers.

"Making it as relevant as possible is extremely important," says Spyro Kourtis, CEO and president of The Hacker Group, a marketing firm based in Seattle that has been pushing QR codes for its clients (and has one on its own building). "Just going to a generic home page is wrong."

Marketing professionals say a common flaw occurs when companies don't keep mobile devices in mind when designing campaigns. The content has to be able to fit on a phone screen; any video should be short and to the point.

"You've got 20 seconds playing a video to convince them you're the hippest thing since sliced bread," Whiting says. 

Using QR Codes to Market Your Business: Change it Up Over Time

Another reason people are falling in love with 2-D tags: some such as Microsoft Tags let companies change the content without altering the tag. A consumer who scans a tag in a magazine might have a different experience from a person who picks up that magazine three months later. The advertising campaign then turns into a living, evolving experience.

"A lot of people think they can just put the bar code on wherever they want and leave it there," Jordan says.  "Lots of campaigns fail because there's a call to action, and the call to action is poor."

Bonterra, for instance, alters its outgoing content to match changing wine varietals or seasonal pairings. "The options are unlimited with the tags," McGuire says. "We can change what's on the back end of the tag any time."

Using QR Codes to Market Your Business: Create Awareness

QR codes have only hit the American mainstream in the past year or two, so people are still learning how to interact with them. Some experts recommend including a small icon or text instruction in your ad campaign to let people know how to use with the tag.

Other companies are easing into it by starting with codes that link directly to a 1-800 customer service number or a mailing list. If your company is in the tech field, or targets younger markets, that's probably unnecessary, though. "Most people who are technologically savvy recognize the code and know what to do," Kourtis says.

Using QR Codes to Market Your Business: Collect and Use the Metrics

Successful campaigns entice consumers to voluntarily engage with your brand. But using the tags provides another benefit: an easy and seamless way to collect information on potential customers. Tag systems will track when and where your code was accessed, what type of phone was used, and can track repeat visitors.

"You need to collect analytics to justify to boss why you didn't waste their money," Whiting says. "You know whether it worked or not."

Ochman says the tag systems allow companies to easily collect phone numbers and e-mail addresses from people, then ask whether you can continue to contact them with information or offers, and help build them into loyal clients.

"If that is the case, you have the opportunity to build your list," she says.