Will QR codes rescue print?

QR Code for http://robkaminoff.comAs a multichannel marketer, I have worked with many magazines to secure print advertising as well as printing companies to print brochures, catalogs and direct mail pieces. As the world (including me) moved toward less expensive and more trackable digital media, the last several years have been miserable for a lot of my contacts in these fields. Many print advertising salespeople have lost their jobs and many printers have gone out of business. Generally speaking, print advertising is good for branding, but not for lead generation.  People are not likely to put down a newspaper or magazine to go on a computer to respond to a call to action on the web.  (When is the last time you put down a magazine or newspaper to type an advertised URL into a computer?). When your smartphone or tablet scans a printed QR code, it takes you into the digital world.  Most applications transport you to a website (which should certainly be optimized for mobile devices) and show you additional information–such as videos, product specs, coupons and contests,  as well as “Buy Now” and social sharing buttons that you can take action on.  Now your printed information is no longer static; it is fully interactive and far more engaging!  For the first time, businesses can track, test, measure and optimize the effectiveness and ROI of their offline advertising campaigns, including an understanding of the messages, QR codes and print media that result in more scans and conversions.

Growth of QR Codes

While QR codes are still relatively new to the United States, they’ve been actively used for over a decade in Japan, where they were invented.  However, QR code adoption in the US has increased 4589% from the first quarter of 2010 to the first quarter of  2011 and eleven of the Fortune 50 companies are integrating QR codes into their marketing strategy.  Some factors fueling this grow include:

Increased smartphone usage.   While standard feature phones have the ability to scan these QR codes, they do not provide a very good mobile experience.  Smartphones, on the other hand, offer consumers the ability to seamlessly transition through information with ease.  This provides businesses the opportunity to engage more deeply with customers and prospects.  According to  Nielsen, sales of smartphones will overtake those of  feature phones in the US by the end of this year.

Acceleration of Tablet Computing. Tablets also offer QR code scanning capabilities. The added real estate and power of tablet computers have the potential to offer consumers incredibly rich, engaging and unique online experiences.  In a 2011 report, Forrester says many etailers report that half of their mobile traffic is already coming from tablet devices.  Be sure to stay tuned on this trend!

Improved scanning and generating applications.  In the past, a big obstacle for this technology was a lack of good, free QR code scanning applications.  Now many such apps are available.   Blackberry and Nokia already provide  QR scanning capabilities in their native camera apps. Soon enough, we will see these capabilities bundled with the OS of iPhones, iPads, Android and Windows Mobile devices. There are even free apps for businesses to generate their own QR codes that will trigger unique experiences for those who scan them.  Of course those that can most easily be customized and provide powerful metrics may cost a small amount of money.  More often than not, the advanced capabilities provided by paid apps yield a high ROI.

Standardization. In recent years, several companies unsuccessfully tried to push their own proprietary codes and scanning application, causing a lot of confusion for both businesses and consumers as to which code/scanner to use. The industry needed consistency to to ensure cross-platform applicability. The battle is over and QR codes have won, providing universal compatibility and the confidence that applications can scale and provide a consistent user experience.

Google’s Integration of QR Codes With Local Search. Google has sent hundreds of thousands of window decals to storefront businesses to seed the market.  The decals include QR codes that people can scan to pull up the business’ Google Places page to get directions, reviews, hours of operation, news and coupons. This effort is still morphing as Google adds more features for local advertisers.

Our Move to an ‘On Demand’ Economy, where we “want our information and want it now.”  Due to incredible advances in technology, consumers can now instantly gain access to almost all desired information; they no longer have to make a mental note to look up the information later in the day. This caters to our impulse desires by connecting our curiosity with the information that we are curious about.

Powerful Mobile Commerce Tool.  Merchandisers can quickly provide a lot more information about products so that consumers have the confidence to buy them right away.  mCommerce is actually safer than standard eCommerce due to the strict information protection by the carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, etc). Once trust is gained, QR codes will be an invaluable asset to mobile commerce campaigns as they will be able to instantly direct consumers to a category or product page where the items can be purchased.  Instead of “batch” processing a bunch of transactions on a computer, users can conduct them singularly “on-the-spot” wherever and whenever they like.

What exactly are QR codes and how can I use them?

A QR code is a 2-D version of a bar code. Because QR codes  contain a second dimension, they can contain 1,000 times more information than barcodes.  Two types of applications, one for businesses and the other for consumers, are required for QR codes to make their magic.

smartphone with QR readerConsumers need a QR code scanner/reader to be able to read the QR code.  Although this is included in the native camera applications for Blackberry and Nokia smartphones, there are dozens of apps that provide this functionality for iPhones and Android devices.  It is rumored that the iOS5, the iPhone operating system to be bundled with the iPhone5 (or 4Gs, whatever they call it!), will contain this functionality too, and its only a matter of time when this gets incorporated new versiond of the Android and Windows Mobile platforms.  The screen to the left, shows how a third-party app integrates this functionality into the iPhone’s camera application.

Businesses require a QR code generator to  determine the action taken by the consumer’s smartphone when it scans a QR code (e.g., open a web page, dial a number, or send an email).  The business can include the QR code in print ads, direct mail pieces, packaging, merchandise tags, articles of clothing, signs, storefront stickers, business cards, etc.  The action takes place when a consumer scans the code with his or her smartphone.  Most applications open a smartphone’s web browser where additional information can be acted upon, including videos, product specs, coupons, contests,  “Buy Now” and social sharing buttons.

Advanced analytics. Businesses can integrate their QR codes  with campaign and web analytics, and learn how many people scanned a particular code via different print channels and associated conversion activities (such as providing an email address, placing a phone call, buying a product, or sharing with friends on a social network).  For the first time, marketers can understand the effectiveness and ROI of their offline marketing campaigns as they can with online campaigns (although they will still have to wait until the next ad or printing to incorporate their learnings!).

Sample Applications

QR codes offer immense value for businesses and their customers.   They give customers the ability to interact with businesses in new ways and obtain more information about companies, as well as the products and services they offer.  They help businesses track the effectiveness and ROI of their offline marketing efforts and differentiate themselves from their competitors.  Here are some illustrative examples:

QR code in Ralph Lauren ad

Print Advertising. Place QR codes into your print advertisements and other marketing materials.  You can connect them to a specific website or video that elaborates on the advertising, enables social sharing or e-commerce. Ralph Lauren has started doing this with their magazine ads.  Note that the advertiser gave instructions as to how the QR code can be used.  This represents a best practice until the use of these codes become more prevalent among businesses and consumers.  You can also use QR codes in any of your marketing materials to direct viewers to a how-to video,  review site, your blog, Twitter and/or Facebook  account, or a mobile coupon.  If you have a mailing list, add a QR code to direct interested customers to a sign-up form.

QR code on real estate signBillboards and Signs. Another great place to print your QR code is a billboard or sign. In this case, a real estate sign includes a QR code.  When scanned, it can take the individual to a virtual home tour, a listing of comps in the neighborhood, or other properties listed by the broker. For signs and billboards, it is important to make the QR code large enough so it can be scanned from the appropriate distance. 


QR card on business cardsBusiness Cards.  A relatively simple way to leverage QR codes is to put them on your business cards.  It can have the same result as a vCard so that your contact information–including name, phone number, email address, physical address and URLs for you website and social network presence–can be saved in the scanning phone’s contact list or address book.  A related application is to put such codes on your name tag when attending events.  This is terrific conversation starter, as well as a way for people to network with you on a go forward basis.

QR code on t-shirtArticles of Clothing.  Turn your fans into walking brand ambassadors by getting them to wear QR codes that, when scanned, provide the messaging that you want to present. This can provide a powerful viral effect!



QR code in storefront windowStorefront Sticker.  Point people to your Google local listing, Yelp page, Foursquare check-in, reviews, menu, products, services, people, company website, etc.  Offer coupons that can be used right then and there, or later.  Show your hours of operation and enable people to make appointments or reservations.



Payment.  Starbucks accepts payments by scanning a QR code on your Starbucks Card!  In general, Starbucks has been on the forefront of experimenting with QR codes.  The myStarbucks application enables a consumer to store the recipe for their favorite coffee concoction and share it with other people. They can send their request for a grande skinny caramel macchiato with two sugars to a co-worker heading to a Starbucks and be assured that they get it right. The application can even help people choose the flavor of their coffee, be it earthy, nutty, bold, smooth or balanced. Users can also find nutritional information for everything offered in the store, a list of nearby Starbucks stores, and the amenities that each provide, such as changing tables in the restroom.


QR codes for electronics in best buyIn-Store Placement.  Place QR codes around your establishment and on merchandise tags, for users to scan and learn more about certain products and/or your company. Best Buy uses QR codes in their product merchandising, enabling customers to obtain much more interactive information than what is provided in standard point-of-purchase cards (or even salespeople for that matter!), including expert and consumer reviews, comparison specs, and how-to videos. Restaurants can place them on napkins to obtain reviews.  Although people typically do not go out of their way to provide positive reviews, they often find a way to rant about their negative experiences. By making the review experience simple, a restaurant can increase the ratio of positive to negative reviews. QR codes placed next to pieces of art can help art galleries sell more pieces, while museums can finally replace those aging audio tape tours! Hardware stores can link to how-to videos on YouTube for each power tool. Food manufacturers or groceries can link to pages that address how their products are sourced or provide additional benefit statements.
QR codes for scavenger hunt
Scavenger Hunts.  Scavenger hunts have become one of the most popular QR applications because they are highly interactive and engaging and offer the opportunity for participants to win prizes.   People are asked to scan as many of the QR codes that have been placed in an area.  Some are relatively easy to find, while other more difficult.  The individual who scans the most QR codes wins the contest!

United Airlines boarding pass with QR codeOnline Ticketing and Boarding Passes.  In your rush to the airport, have you ever lost your boarding pass? United Airlines was the first to allow customers to use QR codes on their phones as boarding passes.  Since then, scores of airlines, sports venues, concert halls, museums and theaters have jumped on board with similar ticketing applications and passes.

The list of potential applications for QR codes is endless.  What examples and applications have you seen that look or sound interesting?

Related Articles

Enhanced by Zemanta

2 thoughts on “Will QR codes rescue print?

  1. Rob,
    Can’t thank you enough for the article. It is by far the best, most complete and understandable explanation of QR codes and uses I have found. I think going forward I will begin to see everything in terms of making a QR code to define it.

    Thx, carolynreis@ymail.com

  2. Thanks, Carolyn. Although I made a strong case for QR codes in this post, don’t forget that tablet computers and e-readers will take market share away from print media.. Another cool thing happening with print, however, is CRM-driven variable print technology, that enables marketers to personalize print messages for individual consumers. Regardless, I would suggest not putting all of your eggs in one basket. The only thing we know about the future is that current trends are subject to change, which makes the industry so exciting for all of us! Stay tuned….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *