The (Second) Rise of the QR Code

QR codes are having a moment. These square, scannable “bar codes” are increasingly being used to engage with customers, support contact-free communication, and provide add-on digital experiences.   

Following the disruption of COVID-19, QR codes are even more popular now than when they first peaked in 2011. Let’s break down why this older technology is making a comeback and how it can help your business.  

What is a QR Code? 

A QR Code, short for Quick Response code, is a square pattern similar to a bar code that has an embedded sequence of characters or numbers. QR codes can contain links to websites or apps, or they can contain data such as account information or coupons. They can be scanned by an optical reader, such as your cell phone’s camera.  

Why Didn’t QR Codes Catch On Before?  

QR codes are not a new technology. They were invented in 1994 and were primarily used for supply chain logistics. In the 2000s, as more people got smartphones, QR codes became a part of mainstream communications for the first time. The possibilities of how QR codes could be widely used became clear, and in 2011, 14 million Americans scanned QR codes on their mobile phones.  

However simultaneously, user frustration and poor deployment meant that consumer interest fizzled out. The technology inspired lists of Top QR Code Fails, articles calling for Death to the QR Code, and analysis of why QR Codes are the Most Abused Technology of 2011.  

There were five key reasons why QR codes didn’t stick: 

  1. Badly placed locations: Brands were asking consumers to scan QR codes at inappropriate times such as on a billboard next to a highway or a subway display when there’s no internet connection.  
  2. Poor deployment: Implementation problems included QR codes that didn’t work or directed users to websites that weren’t mobile-friendly, making them difficult or impossible to use.  
  3. Scanner apps: A separate reader app was needed to scan a QR code. This added friction and ultimately limited user adoption. Eventually, in 2017, the iPhone made it possible to read QR codes directly from the native phone app, streamlining the process.  
  4. Disappointing experience: After the user made the effort to scan the QR code, the results were frequently disappointing rather than providing real value or entertainment. 
  5. Perceptions: QR codes never started to trend within popular culture. As a Forbes article once said, “Millennial users, by and large, see QR codes as about as lame and out of date as supermarket bar codes.”  

Why Are QR Codes Useful?

Even though the use of QR codes dwindled over the years, they have stuck around because they’re very useful.  

From a user’s perspective, QR codes are an easy bridge between the physical and digital world. Rather than having to search for something on Google or type in a web address, users can simply point their camera at a QR code and go. The process couldn’t be more intuitive or user-friendly.  

From a marketer’s perspective, there are even more benefits.  

QR codes are a chance to reinvigorate new marketing channels such as direct mail and other print media. Rather than these venues being solely focused on awareness, they can become actionable pieces of media that can lead viewers to product pages or other parts of your digital ecosystem.  

Plus, dynamic QR codes let you change the destination over time. This makes it possible to easily update landing pages or launch new campaigns. 

They also offer tracking abilities with insight into data and metrics. This can include information about when and where a code was scanned, the device, browser, operating system, total number of scans, and the number of unique users.  

Why Are QR Codes Having a Resurgence? 

About 47 percent of consumers have noticed an increase in QR code usage since the onset of the pandemic, according to a survey of U.S. and UK consumers.  

Much of this change is being driven by the behavioral shifts that occurred. Standard business processes had to be reinvented, and technological solutions were being deployed to meet the new needs.  

 Popular QR code uses in 2020:: 

  • QR codes became a part of contact tracing efforts allowing businesses and organizations to easily capture attendance and location information.  
  • Paper menus were replaced by scannable QR codes, allowing diners to browse menus on their own device.  
  • Restaurants began putting QR codes on takeout packaging, giving customers bonus content like videos.  
  • QR codes also become a method for contactless payment, allowing users to scan a QR code at the register and complete the transaction on their phones.  

Will QR Codes Continue to Gain Steam? 

QR codes are expected to become part of the “new normal.” Since they were helpful solutions during the pandemic, users are more comfortable with them and are more likely to use them across a wide variety of contexts.  

For example, contactless transactions will likely become a standard payment type, and researchers expect that in the next five years, the number of people using QR code payments will increase by 240 percent.  

QR codes are also becoming more embedded into modern culture. As we see them normalized by restaurants, museums, or trendsetters, they could become more widely adopted throughout society. One recent example was a marketing stunt for a video game where hundreds of drones illuminated the sky above Shanghai with a giant QR code. 

There are also hints at a more nuanced future for QR codes where the creator matters. Because QR codes can be a link to a website or app, anyone with a printer can “hack” a QR code that’s on display. This happened recently in Australia when QR code signage was replaced, changing the check-in QR code at a vaccination facility to link to a website with anti-vaccination information. 

As the reemergence of the technology faces new uses and potential risks, trust is still the most important commodity in marketing and communications. When used well, QR codes can be a way for your brand to build better connections with customers.  

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