Imagine giving people the ability to point their smartphone at a benefits enrollment poster, snap a picture and immediately have their smartphone directed to a website for the enrollment with links to customized videos and collateral for the enrollment.

The technology is already here and may be coming soon to an enrollment near you.

Mobile barcodes are already popping up in stores, on advertisements, on product packaging and even in TV ads. The most common types are “QR codes,” an acronym for Quick Response codes, and they are the small, black-and-white squares that look like mazes gone awry. (Or, as noted in a CNN.com report, “barcodes on acid.”)

The new mobile marketing tool

QR codes bring a new level of mobility to marketing. You simply point your smartphone’s camera at the QR code and, using any of the free or low-cost apps that are available, your smartphone can scan the code within seconds and will be redirected to a URL address that corresponds to that unique code. QR codes can also be set up to place phone calls from the smartphone.

Anyone can create a QR code that directs users to a URL address of their choosing (there are apps for creating QR codes, too), so they are easy and affordable ways to get valuable information to consumers who may not be sitting in front of computer, and are a convenience for smartphone users who can avoid the time and trouble of typing in a long website address.

QR codes have been used for years in Japan, and are now catching on here. According to a study of U.S. smartphone users conducted earlier this year by ad agency MGH, 65 percent of respondents had seen a QR code, and of those who had seen a QR code, 49 percent had used one. The most popular uses were to get a coupon or discount, access additional information, enter a sweepstakes or sign up to receive information.

I haven’t noticed many QR codes in the benefits trade publications yet, but that should change quickly. For insurance carriers and producers, QR codes offer yet another way to reach employers or employees, and provide information the customer can access at their convenience. As the benefits landscape changes and employees take more responsibility for their benefits, we’ll need to stay abreast of new ways to serve customers on their terms.

Steve Howard is vice president of marketing and strategy for American General Benefit Solutions (Benefit Solutions), a business unit of American General Life Companies. His monthly blog on ASJonline addresses issues and trends in the insurance industry. He can be reached at steve.howard@aglife.com.

For more exclusive benefits coverage, visit ASJ’s Employee Benefits Resource Center.

Past benefits stories from ASJ:

Benefits Cost Versus Value: The New Math

When Selling Employee Benefits to Small Businesses, Knowledge is Power

Benefits Agents: Update Your Enrollment Process

Thriving in the Midst of Health Care Reform

Dental Savings Can Add Up When Employees Use Network Providers