QR Codes Are 2020’s Comeback Kid Because There’s Actually A Reason To Use Them

Allison Schiff, senior editor, AdExchanger

"Data-Driven Thinking" is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today's column is written by Allison Schiff, senior editor at AdExchanger. It's part of a series of perspectives from AdExchanger's editorial team.

“Are you ready to order?”

The waiter notices my confusion. “Oh, yeah, we don’t hand out menus anymore, you’ve gotta scan that QR code on the table.”

“Um … ”

“Just point your phone camera at it,” he explains in the semi-patient tone of someone who’s suddenly had to deal with a lot of luddites.

This was in late June, when outdoor dining first opened up in New York City. Until that point in my life I’d never contemplated scanning a QR code, which though no doubt still useful to serve the original purpose for which it was invented nearly 27 years ago in Japan – to track vehicle parts during the manufacturing process – had long been relegated to the dustbin of marketing history.

Although QR codes are widely used in China and Japan for everything from payments to pet identification, they never took hold in the US, despite marketer obsession in the early 2010s.

Two Thirds Of Consumers Don't Know What QR Codes Are: Survey (2011)
10 Creative Ways To Use QR Codes For Marketing (2012)
The Year Of The QR Code (2012)
QR Codes Are Dead, Trampled By Easier-To-Use Apps (2013)

Around 2012, marketers excitedly printed QR codes on direct mailers, billboards, in-store shopping displays, the back of cereal boxes and all manner of product packaging.

But all technologies need a real use case in order to thrive. From a marketing perspective, QR codes were a technology in search of a use case.

They failed as a marketing tool in part because marketers didn’t give people a compelling reason to scan them. I challenge you to find someone who actually wants to be taken to a landing page for more information about their breakfast cereal.

To be fair, there was also a technical barrier. Scanning a QR code used to require a separate app. But several years ago, both Apple and Android introduced the ability to scan QR codes using the in-built native camera app on their respective smartphones, and then … 2020 happened.

QR codes are finally becoming mainstream in the US because they can answer real needs during the pandemic: contactless payment, digital menus, self-serve food ordering, touchless shopping and contact-free clothing returns at retail locations, to name a few.

Comic: The Contactless Comeback KidFor example, Bobblehaus, a New York-based sustainable streetwear fashion brand, opened a two-week long popup shop in NYC in September where each item was tagged with a QR code that would lead shoppers to a product page on their phone, at which point they could either arrange for in-store pickup or ship the item to their home at no extra cost.

It might sound gimmicky, but it’s the sort of thing that trains consumers in a behavior tied to an actual need state.

And once this behavior is ingrained, there’s the potential for it to stick around even after everyone takes off their masks. This is already starting to happen.

In August, Instagram launched a QR code generator that navigates customers to a business’s profile on Instagram where they can see updated store hours and make purchases. In September, Kochava partnered with Univision to promote voter registration in the Hispanic community using QR codes. And in November, CVS became the first national retailer to offer support for PayPal and Venmo QR codes as a form of touch-free payment at checkout.

According to SEMrush, total search volume for keywords related to the term “QR code” has increased significantly this year, up by nearly 50% between March at the start of the pandemic and August.

Guess everything that’s old can be new again – just don’t do what this guy did.

P.S. Did you know that the “QR” in QR code stands for “quick response?” I confess I did not. A little bit of trivia you can trot out at your next cocktail party … whenever that may be.

Follow Allison Schiff (@OSchiffey) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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