The QR code finally has its time to shine

The use of QR codes as a way to check in to a venue for contact tracing has elevated this technology to new heights. So will QR codes fade back into obscurity once the pandemic is over, or have they just opened up an enormous world of future potential for marketers?

Marty Drill

By Marty Drill, 7 minute read

The QR code was invented in 1994 and became popular in Japan in about 2002. However, it never really took off in most countries outside of Asia. Now, Coronavirus has thrust the QR code into everyone's faces and it has finally achieved widespread adoption. 

Before the pandemic, most of us only used QR codes a couple of times a year (or not at all) as there was never much of a need. They were also clunky to use and required additional software on your phone to read the code. The process to find the app on your phone, load it, sometimes deal with an ad and then scan the code, just all seemed a bit too long and not worth it. 

When you got to the location, it was generally the home page of the brand, rather than contextual information that related to why you scanned in the first place. Anyone can type in a short URL, so the QR code app didn’t really save any time. 

As Coronavirus threatened all of us, it became necessary to find a way to track where people had visited in order to facilitate contact tracing. QR codes answered that need, enabling people to quickly self-register their contact details.

Governments around the world began to mandate the use of QR codes for checking in to stores, facilities and venues. If it is discovered that a person who has been diagnosed with Coronavirus visited a venue at a certain time, other patrons who were there at a similar time and who may have been exposed to the virus can now be easily tracked and contacted. This strategy was designed to reduce the work of contact tracing teams.

A reputation overhaul for the QR code

The days of the clunky QR code that required the user to download additional software are long gone, but many people had already written them off. With the need to use a QR code to get into everything from cafes and restaurants to yoga classes, people have now been re-incentivised to give them another try. 

These days, smartphone platform providers have enabled cameras to read QR codes and provide the option of opening a URL directly. In the context of Coronavirus check-ins, this leads the user to a form on a long URL to complete their details. Speeding this process up has ensured lines are shorter and has reduced complexity for customers who were already frustrated at having to fill out their personal information to get a beer.

Apple enabled the camera to read QR codes in June 2017 and Google enabled it on Android soon after. However, on Android you needed to enable it through settings until 2020 when they made it standard as part of the camera. 

The QR code has long promised to be a game changer. Coronavirus has provided its moment in the sun, as venues needed a fast way to check people in and get them seated or simply to keep the line moving. The ease of scanning a QR code through the camera app means user frustration is reduced and QR codes have now become a natural way to check in, order or get more information. 

Ordering a drink or dinner at your table using your phone can be an easier ordering experience for both the customer and restaurant/bar staff. The option of table ordering will likely be an ongoing feature to either increase the speed of service and/or reduce the number of staff needed for order taking. 

As people now simply open their camera and scan, the friction is drastically reduced. This offers the ability to provide additional information about the product at the time of deliberation or need. 

Huge potential for marketers

As marketers, we have long been wanting to bridge the gap between the physical world and online. Largely we do this by advertising web addresses on outdoor adverts, brochures and products, and at the point of sale. This relies on the customer taking action at the time and entering the address into their mobile or later remembering the address and having the impetus to visit the address. 

However, the QR code's most prominent application, outside of grabbing your details at the bar/restaurant, will be in advertising. Being able to add QR codes to adverts can provide the ability to track the effectiveness of an ad. Each ad type or even ad location could have a different QR code. 

Historically, different landing pages have provided the ability to focus the attention of the user to a URL that relates to the ad. However, the URL is usually long and users often just type in the brand rather than the URL. By scanning the QR code you can send them directly to the information, get the conversion and attribute the action back to the form of advertising that introduced or reminded them of your product. 

This is already happening in digital displays in shopping malls and airports. Even the fashion channel has QR codes on TV. On-screen transactions such as purchasing what someone is wearing in your favourite TV show will change over time, but for now, the QR code has a place. 

People are dealing with a lot of things in their lives, so their interest fades quickly. Providing people with a QR code instead of a URL at the time of interest increases the chances that they will take action. 

Often advertising can end up being just brand awareness as the intended audience doesn’t take any action. The fact that a person can see something that interests them and take instant action with the QR code, increases the likelihood of conversion and solves the advertising attribution issue. 

Product packaging will become the next major frontier for QR codes. Any time you can provide more information to a potential customer about the merits of a product, its quality or how it's made, generally reinforces the buying decision. 

At the very least, consumers are engaging with your product instead of someone else’s. Imagine you are the Marketing Manager of Cadbury and you want to promote the merits of your traceable supply chain for cocoa. In-store or on the couch, people can watch a video showing where the beans are sourced from, and how the chocolate is made (in Tassie), and can even hear from Beryl who made it. They may have purchased the chocolate (shoes, dress or champagne) anyway, but you have improved their experience and made them feel better about their purchase. 

If you have a client waiting area, you could even provide people with a way to access your brand story while they wait. 

Cooking instructions via QR code

QR codes could be used to video tips from a chef on how to cook a food product.

Other applications for QR codes

There are many applications beyond putting QR codes on advertising or packaging. Consider the situation where you are at a large family pool party. Suddenly a person is dragged out of the pool and is not breathing. You rush over. It has been a while since you learnt CPR so you refer to the resuscitation sign on the pool fence to remind you. There are at least eight images with accompanying text showing the steps. You are nervous and instead of reading step by step, you see the QR code and scan it. It immediately pulls up a video that you give to your husband to hold so you can listen and watch while performing CPR. QR codes have real potential to save lives! 

Other possible QR code applications:

  • Retailers scan the box when a stock line runs out allowing them to instantly reorder
  • Governments could use it for lost persons, as the community is more likely to respond to a potential sighting by filling out a form, rather than calling a number
  • Even people who have lost dogs and cats could use QR codes on signage to get better engagement on any sightings
  • Booking a council BBQ in the park or paying for the gas instead of using coins
  • ‘What’s on’ guide at a hotel reception
  • Room service ordering
  • To access more information about a product or company at trade shows
  • Timetables and bus/tram stops
  • Community submissions about public facilities or play equipment needing attention 
  • Starting a public electric scooter that you can hire on the streets of a major city
  • Hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers could do a quick check-in on a bush track that allows them to be located more quickly in the event of an emergency.

You can put a QR code on anything where someone might require more information or make a submission or purchase. While often this situation is in a retail environment, QR codes will play a much larger role in offline digital advertising. 

QR codes have long had many possibilities. They now have an audience who can use them easily and who see them as normal. This has opened up a really exciting world of opportunities for brands, and my prediction is that we will see widespread adoption of QR codes across many marketing plans in 2021.