July 27, 2023

QR Codes: Still A Thing?

Not only are QR codes still a thing in marketing, they are more popular than ever.

You probably already guessed that since QRs are hard to miss. And that’s part of the reason they’re everywhere. Those wonky-looking checkerboards sure do get attention, but certainly not for their good looks (with a face only their mother, the UPC barcode, could love.) The real reasons for their popularity: They’re cheap. They’re easy. And they are great at what they do, which, maybe not so surprisingly, is a lot!

QR (quick response) is a graphic that opens a web link when scanned by smartphones and other mobile devices. But that simple description doesn’t do justice to the power of the QR. After all, a web link does many things: add a product to an online shopping cart, download a pdf, launch an app, pass exact map locations, send detailed contact information to your device, etc. No wonder marketers love them – again.

The QR isn’t exactly the new kid in town. Invented in 1994, QR codes had their first crack at the spotlight in the mid-2010s with the boom in smartphone adoption. Scanning a little graphic was much easier than typing a lengthy web URL of jibberish. And so QRs began showing up in ads and other print materials. But there were problems.

For one thing, mobile device users were just getting to know the technology. The standard camera apps on many phones lacked the function to scan QRs. And, arguably most importantly, Google was getting amazing at web search, eliminating the need to enter URLs directly. By the late 2010s, QRs were on the outs.

And then, suddenly, they were in again! The use of QRs has grown significantly since 2019, a trend that is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. In 2022, QR code scans quadrupled over the previous year. So, why the resurgence in popularity?

Some theorize that the 2020 Global Pandemic led to greater comfort with and dependency on the convenience of mobile devices. Or it could be after a decade, users got used to smartphones. And the market grew. And technology improved, too. Whatever the reasons, QRs are back. But is that a good thing?

You can decide that. But regarding marketing tools, cheap, easy, and effective are a rare and winning combination.

Technically, QRs come in two flavors: static and dynamic. Static QRs encode the direct URL. Dynamic QRs use aliases that redirect to the URL. In practice, dynamic QRs are more flexible than static QRs, since the redirected address for a dynamic QR can be edited (static addresses can not.) And dynamic QRs are generally less complex graphics that are not as visually obtrusive yet more accessible and dependable for smartphones to read. With dynamic, multiple QRs can be created that redirect to the same URL. This makes it possible to track from which publication a print ad’s QR was scanned – talk about calculating ROI.

As with most trends, QR codes are often overused. They aren’t suitable for every project. And, functionality assigned, QR codes are ugly. Here’s when to exclude them:

  • If they are just going to your homepage and you don’t need to track scans from publications, forget it. Instead, free up valuable white space (your designer will thank you.) On the other hand, if you have a very confusing domain name, consider revisiting your digital marketing strategy.
  • If the QR code’s destination doesn’t offer the visitor any additional value, omit it. The cardinal sin of the Learn More button is failing to provide more information on the page once the customer arrives. The same is true of the QR code. The viewer has to get something out of scanning the code – a special offer, exclusive access, something they want to download, or even more detailed information or a simple signup form.
  • If it’s an email, social media post, or online video, then – no. Think about it for a moment; all these things are on the device used to scan the QR.

Even though proponents claim the QR is here to stay, game-changing technology such as generative AI places everything in question these days. Advances in visual search could render QRs pointless in short order. Who knows. But until then, the QR code is still a valuable tool when used right. Have an idea how QR might fit into your marketing efforts? We’d love to talk it over.


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