For something that is commonplace in modern (urban) existence, it is remarkable how infrequently QR codes are used. Most technologically-aware people would be able to recognize one if they saw it, but the number of people that have actually used them is small, with even fewer using them with any regularity. For all those out there that use QR codes, there are countless others that don’t even really know what they are, and tech and graphic people tend to dislike them on account of them being ugly.
The potential uses for QR codes are numerous – Wi-Fi network login, code payments, virtual stores, URLs, to name but a few – but no single use has exploded to the point where they are legitimately part of daily life. In terms of digital marketing, QR codes have the potential to help audiences find out more about a campaign or access special offers through the codes, though again no single use has stood out as a must for marketing teams at large.
QR codes enjoyed a brief renaissance thanks to Snapchat, which introduced its very similar ‘Snapcodes’ in 2015. Using exactly the same principle at QR codes, the Snapcodes were a quick and novel way for the messaging app’s younger users to add each other, using unique formations of black dots to act as an ID card for users’ profiles. The codes threw the basic idea behind QR straight back into the mainstream, with everyone from Bernie Sanders to Snapchat’s army of teenagers getting on board.
Last year, Snapchat partnered with Starbucks to allow customers to scan QR codes in store and receive free coffees. Crucially, the users didn’t have to have the Starbucks app to qualify for the giveaway, instead using Snapchat as the portal. According to the coffee chain, the numbers were ‘incredible,’ and the success of the promotion suggests that QR codes are held back more by their tethering to apps, rather than the medium more fundamentally. This is why it makes sense for an app like Snapchat to incorporate QR code recognition into its software – if users can do more in an app, they’ll have fewer reasons to leave it.
Unfortunately for the QR code, Snapchat is now in direct competition with Instagram since the latter released a Stories function to rival its young, stubborn competition. Despite Snapchat’s incredible popularity among younger people, Instagram has a comparably overwhelming user base and, with the backing of a company as large as Facebook, it seems inevitable that it’ll win out eventually. Facebook has been far less interested than Snapchat in making QR codes part of its strategy, and it’s difficult to see where mass adoption of the technology will come from.
Facebook does allow people to connect on Messenger by scanning a form of QR code, but it’s not a feature that is given any spotlight on the app and personally I have never seen it used. In fact, I was not even aware of it before researching this piece. Facebook’s adoption of what was actually a WeChat feature initially is novel, but there is a sense that people just aren’t that interested in speeding up the process of adding someone by a matter of seconds. Indeed, the desktop iteration of WhatsApp requires users to scan a QR code from their phone to pair the two devices, but this is about the extent of the exciting use cases of the tech.
A further crucial downside to QR codes is that they are very much a one-way transaction. The fact that they can be printed on everything from advertising boards to stickers has benefits, but it means they cannot collect any information from the person using them. In the age of data-driven marketing, this is a significant downside - users of QR codes are showing an active interest in the brand or campaign putting them out, and this interest should be reflected in some form of data collection. Yes, the QR code itself could open up a sign in page or an email collection page, but this would slow down the entire experience and would put a significant number of users off following through.
Not to make the same mistake as those who hyped QR codes as a revolutionary tool, but there is a booming technology that has the potential to uproot and replace its imperfect competition. The development of NFC tags – small chips used for mobile payment and data transfer - solves one of the major problems with QR codes: that you need an application to read them. The majority of modern smartphones come with NFC chip technology already inbuilt. To achieve the same result as opening an app to read a QR code, users with NFC technology enabled on their smartphones simply need to tap that device against the NFC tag.
Two prevalent examples of NFC codes are Apple Pay and Google Wallet, both of which only require authentication for security reasons and are now firmly part of the commerce landscape. NFC tags are more secure, more flexible, and more convenient than QR codes, and as more people become aware of their existence they’ll gain even further ground on the clunky predecessor.
Whatever the future of NFC tags, it seems unlikely that we will see any significant QR code renaissance. For designers they’re too ugly to be adorning every page or product, for marketers they’re too limited in terms of data collection to be truly useful, and for users they’re just not convenient or worthwhile enough to catch hold. They do accelerate the purchase cycle, and they are fairly useful for accessing deals, but further than this they’re a tech that quite simply no one needs. All those people who have no idea what QR codes are may never be made to find out.