Until recently, many of us saw QR codes as an odd technological folly that started appearing in the early 2010’s but never truly took flight. Yet it turns out that they too were simply ahead of their time.
Unlike the examples above, however, the humble QR code is seeing a bit of a rebirth. But why is that? What exactly are QR codes, anyway? And what does this mean for marketing – both online and offline?
What Are QR Codes?
QR codes (short for “Quick Response codes”) are a kind of two-dimensional barcode which can store a short amount of textual data, a web page link, or elements of identifying/tracking information. They can even be used to add contact information to a device (like a virtual business card), to connect to a wireless network, for event ticketing – the list goes on. Their speed and convenience makes them incredibly useful to mobile users who can simply scan the code rather than manually carrying out the action that the code links to.
QR codes are much more versatile than standard linear barcodes. Normal barcodes (depending on their size, encoding, and the system used) can store between 39 and 128 characters. However, the most advanced version of QR codes (Version 40) can store up to 4,296 alphanumeric characters.
The technology was initially developed in 1994 to track vehicles and components during the manufacturing process but as smartphone use grew, QRs became more widely used.
2020: The Return Begins
After a short burst of popularity in the early 2010s, many of us wrote QR codes off as a weird tech fad. But as 2020 dawned and the Coronavirus pandemic raged, we needed a way to quickly track, communicate, and pay without interacting with potentially contaminated surfaces. Unwittingly, QR codes rose to the challenge.
Arguably the most visible use of QR codes in England and Wales during 2020 was the introduction of Track & Trace codes that enabled those with the NHS COVID-19 app to virtually “check in” to a business or venue to help trace and intercept the spread of the Coronavirus. Similar contact tracing initiatives in numerous countries are similarly propped up by QR functionality.
Imaginative businesses used QR codes during the Coronavirus crisis to facilitate contactless, digital restaurant ordering and payments; in interactive storefronts; and for checkout-free grocery shopping. Aside from the pandemic, QRs are also being used for counterfeit detection, multi-factor authentication, and even on tombstones for virtual obituaries!
In short, QR codes create a seamless transition between physical experiences and digital functions. They’re proving to be an invaluable tool in bridging the gap between online resources and the real world.
Old New Developments: Dynamic QR Codes
As the QR code revolution picks up steam, the concept of dynamic QR codes is gaining momentum too. So what is a dynamic QR code?
Regular, “static” QR codes generally support a single unchangeable functionality; once they’re created, it’s not possible to change what they do or where they point to. If you want to change what a static QR code does or what web address it links to, you would have to replace it with a new QR code. Obviously this isn’t ideal if you still have printed collateral that includes the “old” code.
However, with a dynamic QR code, it’s possible to use the same, unchanging QR graphic across your printed collateral, but freely change what web address it links to. For example, you could print the same, dynamic QR on your business card or catalogue, with a call to action to “read our latest blog post”. Then, when your company publishes a new blog post, you would simply log in to your dynamic QR management software and make the code point to the new link.
OLCO Design’s Prediction: QR Codes Will Rise and Dominate in Marketing
As experienced graphic designers and marketers, we feel that any printed or physical collateral that displays any kind of URL will start to favour QRs instead, especially where dynamic functionality can be implemented.
It’s so much easier to point your phone at a graphic and be taken to a web page rather than typing the address in manually. It encourages interested parties to act, scanning the code here and now; rather than passively making a mental note of a URL and heading there later once the moment has passed (if indeed they remember to). QR codes make the action of visiting a web link from a piece of printed collateral much more frictionless.
Why We Believe QR Codes Will Rise Again
QR Codes Are The Ultimate Link Shortener
Though web address shorteners like Bitly are commonly used to make longer, complicated web addresses easier to type, a QR code is the ultimate link shortener because no typing is required!
Yet in order to use QR codes effectively, you need a little self-awareness. They’re ideal for situations where people are out and about, where their nearest available interaction with the internet (or with tech in general) would realistically be through their smartphone. This makes signage, business cards, or exhibition collateral ripe for QR code usage. On the other hand, there is little point of using a QR code on a website or in an app to link elsewhere online – you may as well just link to that resource directly.
QR Codes Look Neater Than URLs & Eradicate Misspellings
Though this can be dismissed as mere design preference, we feel that a QR code is much smarter looking and practically actionable than a long, trailing web address. If your web address is commonly misspelled or mistyped, then QR codes serve as a simple workaround for this too.
Modern Smartphones Enable Quick QR Code Scans
Recent generation iPhones and iPads allow you to scan QRs natively through their in-built camera app. You can do the same with devices running Android 9 and 10, though you will need to activate Google Lens Suggestions beforehand.
QR Codes Are Novel and Intriguing
QR codes are just on the fringes of common knowledge. Some people will be totally new to QR functionality, others may have totally forgotten about them since their early-2010s heyday. Their high visibility within contact tracing efforts may serve to pique people’s curiosity about their use outside of track and trace functions.
However it’s not just the presence of a QR code that creates interest – its contents can be used to spark intrigue too. Unlike a printed web address, there’s no “spoiler” as to where the code will take you; it’s just a relatively inert, square, monochrome graphic. You could lean into this mystery element with some tempting copy that opens a curiosity gap, urging people to scan the code and see where it takes them.
With dynamic tools, you could regularly change where the code goes, further adding to the enigma…
Dynamic QR Codes Allow for Link Tracking
Without getting into the technicalities of how dynamic QR tools work, their functionality allows for a limited amount of tracking and analytics. Depending on the specific solution you choose, you can expect to track when each of your QR codes were scanned, the geographic location of each scan, and what devices people used, and possibly more.
QR Adoption May Grow Exponentially
When a tech trend makes people’s lives easier (like QR codes do), in a way that’s appropriate to the tech we already use (like QR codes are), then it usually snowballs quickly. If QR codes are going to become a game-changing interface between tech and real life, then it’s going to happen soon.
Some Ideas for Using QR Codes in Your Marketing
QR codes can be used in so many different ways, by companies of all kinds. Need a bit of inspiration? Let’s look at a few inventive uses:
Add a digital flair to your business cards by including a QR code that includes all of your information in vCard format. This way, anyone who has or sees your card can add you to their device contacts quickly and easily.
Include a dynamic QR code on your printed materials with a call to action to “read our latest blog”, “browse our latest offers” or “watch our latest YouTube video”. When you publish new content, update your dynamic QR so those with the code can stay up to date.
Instead of putting your web address on your vehicle livery or exhibition signage/pop-ups, use a dynamic or static QR code instead. In situations like those, people may not want to hang around and type a web address into their phone. They’re especially useful if your website is long, fiddly, or commonly misspelled.
Because you don’t have to type anything in to access a QR code link or resource, they have potential accessibility applications too. They can see good for those who don’t have fine motor control, have problems using their hands, or for those who may struggle to read long URLs or instructions.
Encourage clients to leave a positive review on your review platform of choice by printing a QR code that links to that web address on your receipts, appointment cards, business cards, or point of sale collateral. This will help to bridge the gap between your offline business and your web presence, whilst encouraging positive social proof.
If you resonate with the “mystery” aspect of QR codes explored above, remember that QR codes can do a lot of different things. You can share valuable “Easter Egg” content, such as a text snippet containing a voucher code; an exclusive joke, tip, or meme; or even link to a Google Cardboard VR experience!
If your line of business requires that clients make regular appointments with you; say, if you’re a gas engineer, PAT tester, alarm engineer, or other kind of tradesperson; then you could put a QR code sticker on any related hardware that allows your customer to book their next yearly service or request a quote instantly.
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