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Using QR codes in marketing

First invented in the mid-90s, a Quick Response code is a square bar code that can link the physical world to a digital action when scanned by a mobile device. They debuted to much fanfare, but did not live up to their initial promise in the United States. You may have noticed that QR codes are making a comeback. In this month’s post, we’ll discuss a few of the reasons why this is, and how QR codes might work for you.

Why are QR codes making a comeback?

QR codes really never left – but there are a number of reasons they’re now becoming more popular in this country.

Scanning software is now standard on cell phones. Previously, it was necessary to download a third-party app to be able to scan QR codes, which many people were reluctant to do. Further, there was no go-to free app without ads. Today, however, no app download is required – you can open your camera function on both iOS and Android cell phones to scan a QR code.

Marketers have gotten better at using them. Initially, many marketers used QR codes just to be on the cutting edge, without thinking through the user experience. So users would often be disappointed by, say, scanning a QR code to get a website that wasn’t responsive – or QR codes would be placed in weird places where they weren’t practical for users, such as in a subway where there’s no cell service, or on a busboard that’s moving too fast to be scanned. Or they would link to information that really wasn’t that interesting or worthwhile – for example, a QR code on a toilet paper label would link to the company’s website, and who really needs more information about their TP? What is there to learn about toilet paper that the consumer doesn’t already know? The novelty of QR codes has worn off, and marketers understand that there has to be a good payoff for using them.

The pandemic has created an increased interest in touchless technologies. When COVID-19 first hit, it was unclear to what degree the virus was transmitted via contaminated surfaces, which spurred a sudden flurry of interest in touchless technologies of all kinds. QR codes are a straightforward, low-cost way to eliminate surfaces – such as laminated menus, or even credit card terminals – that many people touch. The pandemic will eventually subside, but the boost it’s given to QR code usage will likely remain.

QR codes can now be used for payment. An alternative to payment via a debit or credit card at a point of sale, payments can now be completed via Venmo or PayPal by scanning a QR code at retailers like CVS. This touchless technology is also more secure than using a debit card. While this trend doesn’t have direct implications for advertisers, necessarily, it does mean that QR codes are becoming much more familiar.

Social media is emphasizing QR code technology. Inspired by the success of QR codes on WeChat, the most popular social media in Asia, Snapchat introduced a form of QR code called a “Snapcode” in 2015. The feature allows users to scan each other’s scapcodes in order to follow them. Instagram picked up the trend a few years later, and now businesses can print their QR codes so that people can scan them to open their Instagram accounts. Facebook also makes it easy for Page administrators to create QR codes for their Pages as well as Facebook Events. Spotify users can share playlists or specific songs using QR code technology as well.

In Asia, QR codes are ubiquitous. According to the New York Times, more than 90 percent of mobile payments are made using technologies that utilize QR codes. The codes have also been used for contact tracing during the pandemic. While privacy concerns mean we likely won’t see some of these types of usages, the widespread adoption and success of QR codes in Asia does help boost usage in the US.

So, what can you do with a QR code?

As explained earlier, QR codes link something in the physical world to a digital action. Some of the QR code usages most relevant to marketing are below — by scanning a QR code, you can:

  • Open a webpage or landing page, perhaps including a coupon or special offer
  • Connect the user to social media feeds
  • Initiate an app download
  • Initiate an email
  • Open a Google map
  • Add a vCard contact to a device
  • Connect to a wireless network

Originally, QR codes were static – that is, once they were linked to a certain website or digital action, you couldn’t change them. Today, however, QR codes can be dynamic, so you can edit the link at will, which makes using them much more practical.

When is it a good idea for marketers to use a QR code?

It almost goes without saying in 2021, but whatever your QR code links to must be responsive – that is, it needs to look and work great on mobile phones. But the most important thing to remember when considering the use of a QR code is making sure the link or action it opens provides real value to the user.

As with all digital marketing, tracking QR code usage is easy and can provide valuable marketing information. Here are some ways QR codes can be used effectively.

On product packaging. But make sure you link to more than just your product’s website – what are you providing of value? Say your product is food – you can link to recipes, special offers, nutritional content and more.

On event posters. QR codes can be linked to online ticketing or more information that won’t fit onto the poster – or at the event can link to maps.

In ads, brochures, direct mail, and other print collateral. The disadvantage of QR codes is that they take up a bit of space – to work, they need to be 2 cm square (roughly .8 inches). That’s a fair amount of real estate on a small print piece, so if you do decide to use a QR code, make it count! What does your customer want to know? That may be different than what you want to tell them.

On business cards and stationery. QR codes can be used for people to easily download your contact information, including website, social media feeds and so on.

On trade show displays. A QR code can link to much more information about your products, or a special landing page for attendees featuring a special offer, a link to a presentation, or special downloads for conference attendees.

On receipts. QR codes on receipts can link to customer surveys, reward programs, special offers and more.

On signage. QR codes can be used on physical signage anywhere the signage is not moving. Here are a few examples of a form of signage and possible links:

  • Museum signage: more information about an object or exhibition
  • Bus shelter signage: bus schedules
  • Restaurant signage: menus, allergy information, or nutrition information
  • Real estate signs: information on listings
  • Ads in bar bathrooms: links to call a taxi or ridesharing service
  • A sign in a retail storefront: link to your e-commerce site

Conclusion

We expect that the usage of QR codes will continue to increase even as the pandemic subsides. But the most important thing for marketers to remember is that a QR code must have a good payoff for the user as well as the marketer. If a user is disappointed in what they find when they take the time to scan your QR code, they’re unlikely to scan any other QR codes you provide.

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