Among the usual bar charts, screen captures, and bullet points in the presentation decks at the Apartment Internet Marketing Conference this past spring, one slide stood out: a photo of three young women, shot from behind, in tight-fitting T-shirts and shorts. The real eye-catcher? A trio of two-dimensional (2-D) barcodes printed on their posteriors. Part of a presentation on new and emerging trends in multifamily technology by Steve Taraborelli, vice president of sales and marketing at Highlands Ranch, Colo.-based UDR, the shot definitely got his audience’s attention. Far from gratuitous, though, the slide included a prescient prediction: “Barcodes,” its caption read. “They will be everywhere.” Designed to be scanned by a smart phone, 2-D barcodes direct viewers to related content on mobile-friendly websites. Faster than entering a long URL into a phone’s browser, they instantly supply users with more detailed information about a topic or product and can even insert data—such as addresses and phone numbers—into smart phone memory points, including contact lists.

True to Taraborelli’s prophecy, 2-D barcodes started popping up in New York’s Times Square this summer, for everything from a campaign to clean up the BP oil spill to a promotion for the city’s Internet Week. And in July, at the Lower Manhattan corner of Houston and Lafayette, Calvin Klein erected a five-story billboard containing nothing but a barcode, with the tease: “Get it uncensored: Calvin Klein Jeans X.” (A scan of the barcode leads to racy images of supermodel Lara Stone wearing the jeans.)

While 2-D barcode marketing has been rampant in Japan for the better part of a decade, the use of the technology in the United States has lagged. But that’s changing as marketers—and tech giants such as Microsoft and Google—put their weight behind barcodes here. More phones, such as Android and Blackberry, are shipping with 2-D barcode readers built into their cameras, and third-party developers are pumping out work-around apps for those that don’t. Put it all together, and you’ve got an emerging tech-meets-marketing trend ripe for the multifamily industry.

“American adoption of barcodes is right on the horizon,” says Taraborelli, who first got a taste for the technology on a visit to Japan in 2005. UDR has now beta-tested scannable “QR” barcodes (short for “Quick Response”) on plaques outside the doors of some of its Washington, D.C., properties, and prints QR codes on the back of its business cards to let other smart phone users instantly scan contact information for its employees and properties. Meanwhile, Google has backed a similar use of QR codes on shop window appliqués as part of its Google Favorite Places campaign. “It’s becoming more ingrained in other verticals, and it will become more ingrained among apartment companies, too,” Taraborelli says.

What They Are, What They Do

If you’ve been on the planet in the past year, you’ve probably already seen a 2-D barcode, even if you didn’t know it at the time. The square, matrix-like emblems have been popping up in print ads for the likes of Ford, Tag Heuer, and Ralph Lauren and can be recognized by their somewhat futuristic—if vaguely hieroglyphic—forms.

They come in a few different flavors. While the pixilated QR barcodes that UDR uses are reminiscent of snow on late-night television, JAGTAG barcodes, with a rounded “L” in one corner framing an array of dots, look more like a data console on the Starship Enterprise. Microsoft’s version, branded as the Microsoft Tag, stands out for its multicolored geometric shapes placed inside a black background.

No matter what type of barcode you see, its purpose is the same: to drive a smart phone user to more dynamic content. Thus, while the Calvin Klein billboard directed users to a push-and-pull video montage featuring the brand’s iconic denim on a selection of impossibly cool models, a Microsoft Tag placed in ads for the Ford Taurus last fall directed users to an animated video tour of the vehicle’s new family-friendly features.

Where They Are

Along with UDR, other firms in the apartment space have begun using barcodes as well. At commercial brokerage firm Sperry Van Ness’ Chicago office, agents now use QR codes to promote available space in the retail component of Alta at K Station, a luxury, mixed-use high-rise within walking distance of The Loop. “This is an extremely compelling way to deliver digital information from non-digital mediums, such as print signage, on mobile handsets,” says Kevin Maggiacomo, president and CEO of Irvine, Calif.-based Sperry Van Ness. “We’ve got interactive floor plans, interior photos, and relevant data from the surrounding area. You can even interact with the inside of the building, while standing outside. This goes way beyond simply putting a static flyer in a box in front of the property.”

Internet listing service has taken 2-D barcodes to the apartment industry’s front lines: It started running Microsoft Tags on the covers of its print magazines earlier this year. When scanned, users are directed to a featured property’s video tour, or multi-community listings for their area or city. The company estimates the barcodes have already appeared on nearly 2 million of its covers. “People have said print is dead, but what we’re seeing now is that print has become more of a driver to interaction in the mobile space,” says Brock MacLean, senior vice president of national sales and development at the Norfolk, Va.-based company. “The cool thing about barcode technology is that it lets you skip going to your PC entirely. You just pull out your mobile device and start searching directly from there.”

Growth Hurdles

To be sure, it is barcodes’ interaction with mobile handsets that has marketers so enraptured with the technology. With mobile search and transactions growing at a blistering pace—40 percent of Americans have now accessed the Internet on a mobile device, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center—the smart phone screen is quickly becoming coveted marketing real estate.

Look no further than mobile’s growth in multifamily to see why. While the percentage of prospects searching for apartments on mobile phones was in the single-digits last year, says its mobile site now accounts for 11 percent of all traffic, up from 2 percent a year earlier. At UDR, which has developed its own search apps for the iPhone, iPad, Android, and others, mobile use is quickly growing beyond search, as well.

Yet as promising as their potential is, 2-D barcodes still have hurdles on this side of the Pacific—five-story billboards aside. While barcode readers are widely available for the Android, iPhone, and Blackberry handsets, an extensive search for an app that would work with the LG Env Touch on the Verizon network was fruitless. A call to Verizon’s customer service line was equally futile; an agent said the carrier didn’t offer such an app and couldn’t speak to any third-party provider who might.

Barcodes also encountered a stateside hiccup earlier this year in Austin, Texas, at the South By Southwest Music and Media Conference, which has become a de facto testing ground for emerging technologies. While the festival’s organizers printed QR barcodes on attendees’ name badges to encourage the easy exchange of contact information, CNET reported that the initiative led to more confusion than connections since many users either didn’t understand what the symbols were for or lacked the awareness that they could scan them with their phones. Then, there’s the fact that no one has settled on one specific 2-D barcode standard, whether QR, JAGTAG, the Microsoft Tag, or a handful of other variants.

“It is an application that is still brand new and probably confuses a lot of people,” says Maggiacomo, who noted one of his downtown Chicago properties was generating around 200 scans per month. “We’re in the early stage of the game, and we know that.”

Still, among the marketing community in general—and the multifamily tech set specifically—the technology has more than its share of supporters. “When barcode technology becomes ubiquitous on smart phone devices, it’s just going to be the standard way of doing business,” says UDR’s Taraborelli. “If businesses aren’t paying attention to this technology, they’re going to miss out on an opportunity to engage their prospects and customers at a different level.”

Joe Bousquin is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, Calif.