Ah, the humble QR code. Originally designed in Japan in the 1990s for use in the automotive industry, with the ascension of smartphones in the early 2010s, it became a marketing tool with limited success.
QR codes were popping up on subway ads and in brochures, but using them required a scanner app on your phone. Not only that, but the QR codes looked high-tech and confusing. Brands had to educate consumers on how to use them, and consumers didn’t want to invest the time in learning.
So an initial QR code boom turned into a bust. Until 2020 came along.
Suddenly, QR codes were everywhere. Restaurants created them to share paperless menus. Some stores utilized QR codes for COVID-19 contact tracing among customers who shopped in-person.
Consumers began using QR codes out of necessity, and they quickly discovered that they were actually very approachable. The technology had evolved since its inception. Now all someone must do to scan a code is point their camera phone and click.
With consumers finally catching on and QR codes experiencing a renaissance, what does that mean for brands?
Creating QR codes
The good news for brands is that it’s just as easy to create QR codes today as it is to use them. There are dozens of tools online that allow you to create a QR code. And while there are some limitations to the design of the code—the three eyes must remain unblocked, the data pattern can’t be crowded, and the quiet zone around the code must be clear to allow for proper scanning—today, there is plenty of leeway for brands looking to customize the design.
The data capture benefits of QR codes
QR codes are a goldmine for savvy marketers who know how to get the most out of the technology. Using the codes provides you access to a wealth of first-party data. With Chrome and other internet browsers phasing out third-party cookies, it is more important than ever before to collect your own information on customers.
QR codes allow you to do that without asking consumers to type in a cumbersome URL or download and register on your app.
Once you’ve captured their information, you can use it for remarketing. But of course, as with all digital marketing efforts, remember to provide an opt-in for users before sending them communications.
For direct mail pieces, brands can create unique QR codes to track engagement and understand the campaign’s success. When you can see who scanned the QR code, you gain valuable information about individual consumers.
Or consider live events (when we’re allowed to do those again). As an alternative to event apps, QR codes reduce friction in reaching attendees since you’re not asking them to download anything—it’s a simple point-and-click to learn more. And once you have their contact details, you can follow up with information that ties in with the theme of the event and builds on your thought leadership in their area of interest.
Greater Accessibility Across the Board
QR codes also empower you to reach a broader audience. Think about the possibilities of placing a QR code on a subway ad in an international city like New York. Anyone can scan the code, and it can take them to a page where they select their preferred language and read up on your brand in their native tongue.
The codes can also be leveraged to speak to an audience that can’t engage with visual content. This example of a research team that created a QR-coded periodic table of elements to teach chemistry to blind and visually-impaired students demonstrates the potential applications.
The future of QR codes
QR codes have come and gone in the past. What’s to stop them from receding into the shadows once again when COVID-19 ends?
Things are a little different this time. QR codes are now a recognized and easy-to-use tool. Consumers have incorporated the codes into their daily routines; they’ll be more willing to adopt new applications for them going forward.
They also come with the distinct benefit of being environmentally friendly. Sustainability concerns loom large for many consumers and brands. For those looking to reduce their environmental footprint, offering digital paperwork in place of printed materials is a big win.
QR codes have had an interesting life. From their birth on the auto factory floor to ubiquity in COVID-era marketing, it will be interesting to see what comes next. They’ve proven to be flexible, durable little things, and we suspect brands will discover new and creative ways to leverage the technology in the coming years.