Cracking the QR code

Maybe they aren’t a marketing panacea, but the barcodes are easy to create and to incorporate into a wide range of materials.
A record player
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QR code on bottle of Australian-made Yellow Tail wine.

Podcasts rose, fell and then rose again, thanks in large part to the popularity of “Serial.”

Now, what of the QR code?

Quick Response codes date to 1994, when the two-dimensional barcodes were first designed for the auto industry in Japan. Several years ago, a representative from a local printer suggested to me that QR codes had already peaked. But then I seemed to see more QR codes than ever.

Just in recent months, I took note of these:

Isaac's Deli table-top sign

Isaac’s Deli table-top sign

McDonald's cup

McDonald’s cup

Best Buy sign

Best Buy sign


Home Depot end-cap display

For the past 18 months, Goulet Communications has incorporated a QR code into the cover design of Drayer Physical Therapy Institute’s quarterly external newsletter. Each code links to a video stored on Drayer’s YouTube channel.

DrayerScreen shot 2015-04-01 at 3.59.23 PM

So are QR codes coming or going? HubSpot, an inbound marketing company, asked the question more direly in an August 2014 article: “Are QR codes dead?”

The article summarized some of the research about QR code use: “A 2013 survey found that only 21 percent of American smartphone owners say they’ve ever scanned a QR code, and just 2 percent say they scan a QR code at least once per day.”

Not dying, not thriving

The author confessed, “I’ve never scanned a QR code in my entire life, and I’m pretty tech-savvy. I can’t even recall watching a friend scan a QR code either.” (Just a suggestion: If you’re pretty tech-savvy and writing an article about QR codes, make the leap and try one.)

Other results were mixed (aren’t they always?): In 2012, 97 percent of consumers didn’t know what a QR code was. Meanwhile, marketers were fairly bullish on QR codes, 29 percent rating them “very effective” and another 66 percent “effective.”

“So what does this data all mean?” asked HubSpot. “Basically, QR codes appear to be working for that small, stagnant population that knows how to use them. While QR codes aren’t ‘dying,’ they’re certainly not thriving.”

So many consumers don’t know about them or how to use them, or they’ve tried them and found the results lacking. But isn’t this often the sad reality of technology, that the medium tends to become the message? Really good content should be the thing, not so much the means by which you get to it.

I could list many positive uses for social media, but I also can think of plenty of people who have tweeted something ignorant and had to apologize for it. Maybe the problem isn’t so much with Twitter as it is with the tweets of twits.

Good and bad uses

Duke Ellington once said there are two types of music: the good kind and the other kind. Likewise, there are good uses for QR codes and bad uses.

Think about the examples in the photos above. If I’m in a Home Depot, why should I have to pull out my smart phone to check on inventory? Shouldn’t I be able to get that answer from someone — yes, a person — in the store?

Isaac’s use makes sense to me. I’m at a table waiting for my food: It’s a reasonable next step to sign up for the loyalty program.

One of the worst examples I’ve seen is a giant QR code on a billboard. Unless it was a billboard to promote QR codes (it wasn’t), what was the point? Was I supposed to pull over, run up to the billboard, and scan it with my iPhone?

The website compiled a great list of 10 of the best and 10 of the worst uses for QR codes.

HubSpot suggested using an A/B test to gauge the effectiveness of QR codes.

“For example, at your next event, you could include a QR code on half of your programs, and a shortened, easy-to-remember URL on the other half, both linking to the same page on your website.” Tracking codes associated with the QR code and the shortened URL then could be compared to see how many people visit from each one.

QR codes aren’t a marketing panacea, but they are easy to create and to incorporate into a wide range of materials, from newsletters and cups to print ads and signs. In the right situation, why not try one?

And while we’re at it, why not take some time to educate customers: How about a QR code that links to a video about how QR codes work?

About the Author

Neal Goulet

Neal Goulet, Owner
Having been a journalist, Neal knows writing, grammar and style, as well as the language and movements of a newsroom.
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