Has covid-19 finally made the qr code relevant?

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
August 18 . 3min read

The past few months of restricted living have meant less visits to the pub than usual, so it was a certain amount of relish that I looked forward last week to a mate's 40th birthday bash. The night out involved two pubs and a restaurant. A sign of the times was the conversation beforehand (on the obligatory WhatsApp group) about being Covid safe – and the resulting crowd of blokes wandering down the street looking like masked vigilantes in some sort of horrific future dystopian comic-book world.

Anyway, all of this is just a preamble for me to get to the point of all this: QR codes. Every venue we went into had a QR code on the wall outside, the door on the way in, and on an easel or something at the hand-sanitiser table at the entrance. And none of us missed a beat when using it: even the more technologically challenged of us. This wasn’t anyone’s first QR code rodeo.

Which got me thinking a little bit about the much-maligned QR code and whether its moment may have finally arrived.

Every venue we went into had a QR code on the wall outside, the door on the way in, and on an easel or something at the hand-sanitiser table at the entrance. And none of us missed a beat when using it: even the more technologically challenged of us. This wasn’t anyone’s first QR code rodeo.

For those who aren’t aware, the QR code has been around for a LONG time. An abbreviation of ‘Quick Response code’, it was invented in 1994, took off pretty early in Asia (in countries like Japan and South Korea where the use of mobile internet took off much, much earlier than the west). And it was the subject of a lot over-excited campaign ideas in the mid noughties – I remember one over-excited techie trying to persuade me to put one on the front of a magazine as a prize draw entry mechanic in around 2007. Thankfully I didn’t. Because the problem with QR codes was always the need to download a special app to read them – which straight away posed an almost insurmountable barrier for the end user. Unlike a TV or radio, QR code readers weren’t ubiquitous and so couldn’t be relied on to reach, or activate mass audiences.

And so QR codes kind of fizzled out a bit. Yeah sure they were used here and there, but you didn’t tend to see them as key parts of the customer discovery journey in ad campaigns (again in the West – in Asia they have been more successful). Then came 2017 and Apple embedded the QR code reader into its native iPhone camera, changing the game (Android wasn’t far behind). No longer did users need to download a fiddly QR code reader app, now they could just open their camera and point it at the QR code. Simple. But still QR codes didn’t reach mass adoption – there hadn’t yet been a use case that would make them ubiquitous.

Step up Covid-19.

With the need to capture people’s venue attendance details for track and trace purposes, and the obvious problem of having every punter share the same pen, a couple of enterprising businesses used QR codes to short-cut to a simple web-form to capture the data. And voila: no need to touch any unnecessary surfaces, and no need to laboriously type in a difficult URL unto your mobile browser after a couple of pints. Everyone’s happy.

QR codes: No need to touch any unnecessary surfaces, and no need to laboriously type in a difficult URL unto your mobile browser after a couple of pints. Everyone’s happy.

And the upside for brands is that with more people familiar with QR codes, we can start testing them at different moments in the customer journey to see whether they add value. There are many, many uses:

Events: activate click to tweet, track attendance, access wifi networks

Reporting: report a pothole, illegal dumping etc to your local council

Retail: buy product online, join loyalty/reward schemes

Print: coupons, sales promotions

Experiential: link offline to online to gather data

Hospitality: rapid ordering for popular bar or restaurant items

The only limit, really, is the number of characters a QR code can contain (you can find out here) and your imagination.

But, of course, just because people are now more familiar with QR codes doesn’t mean we should drop them into every situation. As always, there is a value exchange at play. Is using the code worth the time of the person you’re hoping to influence? If you’re adding genuine value, then the answer will be yes. And with C-19 training your customers to use them, now is the time to see whether these excellent little gizmos can smooth out your CX.

If you want to have a play with QR codes check out this website.

Image credit: @purzlbaum

Richard Parker

Richard Parker
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