QR Codes and Microsoft Tags: New Promotion Generation

QR Codes are the latest cutting edge technique for linking the consumer of a traditional product to the digital world. They are a new way of spreading messages, improved by all those advantages and flexibility which Internet can offer.

QR codes work in a variety of ways, including pointing people directly to a website just using a smartphone camera to scan the code. That’s why they can be considered a brand new and useful tool for promoting business and meeting potential clients.

Microsoft has decided to be part of the business establishing different rules. That’s why it has come out with its own proprietary format of advanced coding: Microsoft Tags.

Where are the differences between them? Which advantages for your business? Which the more suitable and appealing solution for graphic industry?

This is what we are going to understand with this article.

More about QR Codes

QR codes (abbreviated from Quick Response code)are the equivalent of the more common barcodes.

Where barcodes have just one dimension, QR codes are bi-dimensional and can contain much more information. They need just a reader installed on mobile phone equipped with a camera. The image is scanned and the reader decodes the information. Data are delivered in the easiest possible way.

Barcodes found in the past their wide use in the packaging industry to identify products in stock. QR Codes are far more than this. They can be used for connecting people in the real world, made of advertising, packaging and printed stuffs, to a virtual reality, where you find vCards instead of business cards, websitesfor brochures and product cards for packaging descriptions.

As well as barcodes, QR Codes can be easily scanned. They don’t need dedicated hardware, just a camera and a reader application specific for the code. Most of the readersare free and, at the end of this article, you fill find a list of links and other resources which worth a visit.

QR code data capacity

  • Numeric only: Max. 7,089 characters
  • Alphanumeric : Max. 4,296 characters
  • Binary (8 bits) Max. 2,953 bytes
  • Kanji/Kana Max. 1,817 characters

QR codes may be used to display:

  • Free text to quick inform the occasional reader about, product details, special offers, upcoming events, competition rules, coupon based promotions
  • vCard, format file for business card to easy share contact details and social identity such as LinkedIn or Twitter account
  • URL to promote business or personal links

Displaying them printed on magazine or advertising you provide interactive contents to the reader.

QR Codes have not been developed to be attractive. They usually are monochromatic, using black and white fuzzy graphic. Anyway, with a good creative approach their appearance can be greatly improved, using different colors, by incepting image in the code and using background blending techniques. You only need to bear in mind some basic guidelines that we will see later in the article.

More about Microsoft Tags

Since 2D barcodes have not been standardized, Microsoft has created its own reply to the QR Codes: Microsoft Tags.

MS Tag uses a Microsoft patented technology called HCCB (High Capacity Color Barcode) which, as the name suggests, allows the use of the basic CMYK colors.

As well as QR Code, Microsoft Tag supports four basic content types: URLs, free text, vCards and a dialer.

  • URL: You can encode any URL, but, since Microsoft actually manages your encoded data, it also can exclude those URLs which are in Microsoft’s blacklist.
  • Free text: tags can encode up to 1000 characters. Optionally you can also choose a password to protect your contents.
  • vCard: You can upload contact info by typing the information into a form. A password is optional.
  • Dialer: You can auto-dial a phone number. Password is optional.

Tags are powerful tools for temporary guerrilla marketing and promo code campaigns. You can also specify an expiry date for the promotion.

The information Tag shared can be re-edited without recreate the image from scratch. This could be possible because of the unique info encoded is an ID containing a link which points to a server. This automatically reply with the required information there stored.

This point requires further explanation. When you sign in for MS Tag account you get access to you Tags Manager. Tags Manager not only allows you to create new tags and generate their image, set how long they will be active etc. As a matter of fact, it represents your tag content. That’s why users not only need a dedicated reader but also an Internet connection available in order to read a MS Tag.

The differences between QR Codes and Microsoft Tags make the user confused in which platform should be better.

The HCCB technology makes able to encode more number in a smaller area. That’s why MS Tag can have an extremely small footprint, handling the errors much better than QR Code. As a matter of fact, MS Tags encode less information than QR Codes. Less data means less error where more data means a larger amount of information to decode and more error may occur.

The platform supports three basic visual display modes: triangle, points or even custom tags which, anyway, must be done by following precise guidelines.

If you look at these guidelines they may look a bit complicated but they ensure you a great flexibility in your tag creation. If you choose to use dots, you can even add a custom photo-realistic image as background.

Graphic and Marketing Industry Uses

QR Codes have been on the run since several years now, whereas Microsoft Tags are a recent creation. By the way, they have recently known an increment in their application, becoming more widely used in marketing campaign. Communication and marketing experts have integrated them into both traditional and interactive campaigns. This has provided a new frontier in the customer’s behavior analysis. Let’s see what they are useful for.

Call-to-Action and Marketing Campaign Tools

QR codes and MS Tags are offering endless marketing opportunities. Today, with the remarkable growth of mobile and smart phones, this potential can be easily implemented.

Use them as call-to-action tool to give direct access to your web site, software or promotions. Add them to your print campaign, magazine ads or even on your business card and let your content instantly available on mobile devices. Your reader just need to scan the squared image and info will be ready to be used or stored.

Pay attention and remember that MS Tags need an active connection to be run, whereas QR Code can be also used offline. This is obvious since, as we said, MS tag actually doesn’t contain any real information except for an ID which points to the real data stored in the MS Servers. Clearly this is a disadvantage on the side of the privacy issue. On the other hand, for the same reasons, they are a powerful marketing analysis tools. MS servers elaborate the requests returning you a report. Data provide detailed metrics like geo-location, repeat scans and demographics info.

The same is also possible by using QR-Code but the analytics collected depends on the reader app used for scanning. Since Microsoft Tag official website only provides the appropriate MS Tag reader they have much more control on the data acquired, which make, in this case, MS Tags more effective. You’ll be able to make an accurate campaign effectiveness measurement of the response rates.

instantShift - Microsoft Tag Manager

Creating a unique URL for a specific code campaign you can measure the response rates with a high degree of precisions. This helps the ROI (return on investment) calculation and allows better allocating marketing budgets for future campaigns.

Business Cards, Printed Literature and Web Identities

You can also take advantage from 2D Codes use adding them to your own business cards. In this way you will address your personal details to potential clients, customers or employers directing them all data in a quick and easy scan. Your vCard will be instantly recognized and stored in their devices, available for future contacts.

Brochures are another ideal application for 2D codes. Trade shows are probably one of the best places to distribute marketing literature with QR Codes. Just think about how many people, walking around the booths and having a smart-phone in their hand, pick up your brochure and scan you Company contacts.

Recently QR-Codes and MS Tags have also been integrated on company websites,personal portfolios and micro-social identities (such as Twitter backgrounds). As we already seen for business cards, you add a code which points out to your digital identity, making the link easy to be stored on the phone.

Other Places Where They Can Be Displayed

2D Codes can be printed or displayed on a variety of mediums including newspapers, magazines, packaging, posters, plasma/LCD screens, billboards, T-shirts mugs and other gadgets

Is clear what kind of powerful promotional tool they are.

Great Use Example: Tesco at the Korean Market

Tesco Home Plus is a supermarket chain in Korea which was determined to become grocery number 1. Despite of its main competitor E-Mart had more store they tried a new and innovative way to increase their popularity and customers without increase the number of stores as well.

The video will show you how they applied an extremely creative and strong campaign which heavily involves QR-Codes use.

Tesco set up several virtual grocery stores decorating subway/metro stations with posters that completely cover the wall and resemble the aisles and shelves of a supermarket. Each represented product was equipped with a QR-Code. Customer simply scan the products adding them to a shopping list while they are waiting for the metro, pay the virtual cart with credit card and their groceries are then delivered to home.

instantShift - Tesco Home Plus subway virtual store

It is a true and innovative way of thinking the everyday life, people will be buying food based on photo and description appeared on their mobile display.

What you need to know to create your own 2D Code

There are several free sites you can use to create your QR Codes. As said, only Microsoft provides MS Tags creator.

There are few rules to follow to create a QR Code and customize it, several others that need to bear in mind in order to create MS Tags.

It should be admitted that Microsoft provides a huge amount of, more or less, clear documentation, samples and guides, to properly implement your own MS Tag. You can retrieve all of them by following this link to the resources available on the official site.

QR CODES Creation Rules

Here following some tips which should help you in creating your QR Code making it widely compatible and readable from most handsets:

  • Colors: the best is using black on white background. Do not invert the QR Code design and colors because this will make it unreadable. If you want to customize it then choose strong contrast and make sure that you are using a dark color instead of the black and a light color instead of the white.
  • Space: you need to keep at least 4 mm of white space surrounding the code to make clear to the device where its bounds are.
  • Ratio: if you resize the code don’t use any interpolation nor change the size ratio. If you shrink or squeeze your code it can’t be read.
  • Size: the more is the content, the bigger should be the size. Code size need to expand accordingly with the number of information contained.
  • Usability: few rules of usability should be applied. For example remember to use the international format for phone numbers (i.e. +39 for Italy, +44 for the UK, +1 for the US etc). Make sure that any URL points to a mobile friendly content.
  • Compatibility: there is a huge number of handsets on the market and each of them have is own camera which different acquiring and correction mode. Test as many handsets, readers and encoders you can and find the most suitable for your content. Testing increase its importance if you customize the code with creative graphics and colors.
  • Design: be creative and try to integrate your code with other elements of the poster or the main artwork. This will help you to reflect your brand identity. Match the colors or include it inside other shapes. Incorporate your logo. Custom codes need to be printed larger than standard one to increase the error correction possibilities of the reader. Usually readers are able to correct up to the 30% of the code. Avoid exceeding this percentage when you customize the code.

MS Tags Creation Rules

General rules are the same of those that we have seen for QR Codes. Size can be scaled but not squeezed or shrunk.

The black and white Tag border is part of the Tag and it must not be customized or changed in any way.

The official guidelines said:

To provide a wide variety of branding and creative opportunities, Tags are customizable. You can modify how a Tag looks to suit your individual and business goals.

The “Quick and Easy” approach lets you customize Tags by using dots instead of triangles and replacing the background with an image, as shown:

instantShift - MS Tags Creation

Using the “Advanced Design” approach, you can create more intricate designs by integrating symbols into the design concept, as shown:

instantShift - MS Tags Creation

The official guide is highly detailed and also contains a short tutorial on how to customize your code using Adobe Illustrator and on how to disguise the original code dots inside an personal artwork and let it still working.

For more details I invite you to carefully read Microsoft Tag Implementation Guide. How to ensure your Tag works properly.

Key differences between QR Code and Microsoft Tag

Here below two tables which compare the main Pro and Cons of QR Code and Microsoft Tag.

QR Code PRO and CONS

W/B colorsNot really attractive but can be customized
HistoryHigh compatibility with a wide range of handsets and devices
 Appealing and visual basedLess supported
The content is self-containedCan be used offlineIf you change something in the content you have to print the render again


CMYK colorsMore attractiveMore expensive to be printed
Small footprintLess invasive, more info in smaller area to coverNot really useful, particularly if displayed on screen, posters or billboards
New technologyAppealing and visual basedLess supported
The content is on MS serversMore detailed metrics
You can change the content whenever you want without need to print the render again.
– No offline use is possible
– Lower user privacy protection
– You need a live connection

A great and clear article about the key differences between these two 2D code platforms is that written by Tamir Khason, titled Microsoft Tag vs. QR tag.


QR Code Resources

QR Code Generators

QR Code Marketing Tools

Some Example of QR Code Creative Use

Microsoft Tag Resources

Example of Microsoft Tag Creative Use


During the last few years 2D Codes have seen an increase in their useas marketing tools, and have been integrated into both traditional and interactive campaigns. They are useful to manage the customers experience establishing immediate contact with them.

We can talk endlessly about the differences but everything at the end is reduced to individual opinions and preferences. Personally I still prefer QR Codes for a bunch of reasons.

Firstly you don’t need to be connected to Internet to use de code. This means that a plain text or a vCard can be received and saved without being online.

This brings me to my second reason. I’m the only proprietary of my information and they are not stored in a remote, even the most secure of the World, server.

I know I have to accept a less eye catching graphic but I can consider this as a point of start to work on. We have seen that also QR Codes allow appealing images; it just needs to be creative. After all we are the right people for the job.

What do you think about? Have you ever included QR Codes or Microsoft Tag in some of your works? Which feedback have you received? Let’s share our stories together!

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  1. I would check out http://www.clickthis.com for another innovative usage of QR-codes. It uses the code to synchronize the Clik app with the computer, effectively making it a remote control for your computer. It is free for iPhone and Android.

  2. Apps are what is needed to make your smartphone smart and unique.Im fond of app creating and find it really helpful to use site like Snappii where i can build apps in minutes.

  3. I see red flags all over this one and the fact that Microsoft has patented it says only one thing to me. How much is this going to cost me in the long run to implement? CMYK?? How does this color format find its way into a digital world when the gamut cannot even be correctly identified by a digital monitor?

  4. Nice article Ester, I do agree with Kevin on the MS Tag patent and the fact they hold onto their rights. However Kevin should realize QR codes are real-world ‘printed’ to digital online. Printers use the CMYK (reflective model) while monitors and screens use RGB (radiant model).

    QR codes have an enourmous install base. The fact that QR codes are ‘open source’ (free) and that many companies offer added value services like MS Tag makeing QR codes ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’. Plus that there are loads of free QR code generators and scanners for all makes of phones, does make QR codes a more messy than MS Tag.

    This is because (still today) most QR codes are poorly implemented and most QR code scanner Apps are of poor quality to say the least.

    We will have to wait and see what hapens, the race is not run yet. And the people will determine what they prefer to use ;)

  5. Thank you all for your comments, I hope receiving more :-)
    @Jeroen thank you for your perfect outline of the situation. As a matter of fact 2D codes are increasing their relevance but there is not a real standard use yet. We have to wait and see what happens.

  6. Thank you for exploring the world of QR Codes in your post. by the way, 2D codes will be my priority selection. :)

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