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Commentary & Analysis

Do Consumers Love QR Codes and Just Don’t Know It?

What happens when you show people they can save time by holding their phones up to a black-and-white graphic and connecting directly to a website? I’m having the opportunity to watch it happen in real time.

By Heidi Tolliver-Walker
Published: November 13, 2019

What happens when you show people they can save time by holding their phones up to a black-and-white graphic and connecting directly to a website? They think it’s really cool. If they have a good experience, they might even do it again. It’s just that they don’t know they can do it. Someone has to tell them.

I’m talking about QR Codes, of course. I didn’t use the name because most consumers don’t know what they are called, and they don’t care. They may never have used QR Codes, don’t know what they are, or why they should, so when they have a reason to try it and the experience is positive, they are pleasantly surprised. I have been experiencing this dynamic for several weeks. I must say, it’s been very interesting to watch.

The ability to hold your camera up to a QR Code and be taken directly to a website without needing a QR Code reader has been around for a while, and it addresses one of the major barriers to adoption of the technology. No extra steps. Just hold up the camera, focus on the code, and a link pops up. Touch the link on the screen and the connection is made.

This capability is not new. It’s been available through iOS 10 since 2016, and more recently, through Android. People just don’t know it’s there. So what happens when you tell them? Most often, it’s a pleasant surprise. “Cool!” they exclaim. “I didn’t know my camera could do that.”  

I have the opportunity to watch this play out because I serve as a volunteer at the annual six-acre corn maze in Kingsville, Md., run by Beachmont Christian Ministries, which is led by my husband, Stewart. For the last year or so, I’ve been irritating Beachmont’s director of development, Ben, with discussions about QR Codes. Since these codes are something he despises, he now puts them up here and there just to prove to me that they don’t work.  

Ben’s first attempt to prove me wrong was to place one on a giant video screen at a teen event this past summer. Number of scans: zero. I argued that he was deliberately sabotaging the test since, as an IT guy, he knew perfectly well that if anyone tried to scan the code, they would get nothing but a white screen. His response? “EXACTLY!”

Now, at the corn maze, Ben has added QR Codes to the posters throughout the grounds inviting visitors to take a satisfaction survey for a chance to win a prize. The codes are printed just below the .bitly link taking them to the survey. The posters are headlined, “How Did We Do?” and placed in three locations throughout the grounds, including at the exit to the maze, where Stewart and I stand to greet visitors at the completion of their quest. I don’t know how many people take the survey elsewhere, but I know that many people do at the exit because we encourage them to do so.

When Stewart asks people to take the survey, he emphasizes the QR Code over the .bitly link every time. “Just put your camera on the QR Code and it will take you right there,” he says, tapping the code on the poster. He does it, not because he’s trying to educate the public about QR Codes, but because he wants their feedback. He’s discovered that, since visitors’ cameras are already out, asking them to now turn those cameras to the QR Code is the most likely to lead to the result he wants. In nearly all cases, the link pops right up (although some of them do have older operating systems that do not offer this capability). They are genuinely surprised and say, “Cool!”

I would venture to say that nearly all of those who have scanned the code at our encouragement have never done so before. But because it was easy and they had a good experience, they will probably do it again. They might try it on a transit poster. Or a toy package. Or piece of direct mail. The fact that not one of them had to open a QR Code reader to do it is a huge help. 

The longer term fate of future QR Code use by these newly QR-Code-initiated will be determined by the experiences on the back end of these scans the next time they do it. There is no guarantee that those experiences will be positive, but that’s not the technology’s fault. One of the barriers to QR Code use has been taken down, and it’s up to marketers to figure out what they want to do with it.  

Heidi Tolliver-Walker Heidi is an industry analyst specializing in digital, one-to-one, personalized URL, and Web-to-print applications. Her Marketer’s Primer Series, availalbe through Digital Printing Reports, includes “Digital Printing: Transforming Business and Marketing Models,” 1:1 (Personalized) Printing: Boosting Profits Through Relevance,” “Personalized URLs: Beyond the Hype,” and “Web-to-Print: Transforming Document Management and Marketing.”



By Sneh Choudhary on Nov 13, 2019

Heidi, this piece is extremely well thought out and well-written. All my conversations with marketers and business owners around QR Codes have also been extremely positive and the stats prove that QR Codes will become a powerful marketing strategy. And, it doesn't stop with opening websites. You can also scan a QR Code and make a call, send a predefined text or email, save contact information which is crucial for lead generation. In fact, we've even gone ahead and added Zapier integration to our solution so that when a QR Code is scanned, an automatic task runs in the background. For instance, a customer fills out a response after scanning a QR Code and is sent a PDF on their email.

Our QR Code Generator also has a 14 day trial that you can use to preview these options: https://www.beaconstac.com/qr-code-generator


By Gordon Pritchard on Nov 13, 2019

Let’s see - after 20 some years since the development of modern QR codes the barrier to consumers not using them is that they don’t know they can read them with their smart phones? And I suppose that the absence of QR codes at print trade shows is that industry suppliers know that attendees don’t know that QR codes can be read with a smart phone.
Seems a case of beating a dead horse.


By Marc Johnson on Nov 13, 2019

Gordo- absolutely correct :) First it was "people don't want to download an app" .... now it's "people don't know the camera app can do it."

Talk to designers and brand marketers ... they HATE QR codes from an aesthetic point of view and want image recognition... but then get stuck with the "have to download an app" issue all over again.


By Heidi Tolliver-Walker on Nov 13, 2019


Gordon, I'm simply writing from the perspective of watching thousands of people come through the exit of the corn maze and watching hundreds of them use a QR Code for the first time. I've written about QR Codes, read the data on QR Codes, and heard the opinions of experts for years. I've used QR Codes myself. I've done mini-focus groups. But this was the first time I literally watched hundreds of people scan a QR Code for the first time and watch the genuine surprise and, I dare say, delight, at the experience. That's the perspective I'm writing from.


By Gordon Pritchard on Nov 14, 2019

You've experienced that having a person standing beside a display containing a QR code and explaining to consumers how to use their smart phones to read the code enables them to have the QR code experience - 20 years after the tech's introduction. Hardly a practical, viable, marketing method.
QR codes, IMHO, represent a dead technology.


By Heidi Tolliver-Walker on Nov 14, 2019

What I experienced was hundreds of people, not one, being exposed to QR Codes for the first time, being shown how to use them, and responding to a positive experience. If it were one or two, I can see your point. But there were thousands of people who came through every weekend, and I stood at the exit much of that time, interacting with people, including watching them experience QR Codes for the first time. It suggests to me that, while many people have written off QR Codes, there is truly an opportunity there. Still.


By Gordon Pritchard on Nov 14, 2019

@Heidi Tolliver-Walker
That's my point exactly.
I guess I wasn't clear. If you hadn't been standing at the exit much of the time to show the thousands of passersby how to use the QR codes you would have gotten zero response to them. And it's just not practical from, a marketing point of view, to have people at point of purchase explaining how to access QR codes printed on packaged goods or on displays.
"People" have essentially written off QR codes because over the past 20 years the QR codes simply haven't attracted any meaningful amount of consumer usage.
Time to move on.


By Joe Casey on Nov 19, 2019

Heidi, Gordon -
Even a small response can be better than no response. If you are looking for responses from a smartphone-savvy audience, QR codes might be just the ticket. And for better results, try better QR codes that alert people to what they will see when they scan: https://www.seemeqr.com/


By Marc Johnson on Nov 19, 2019

A good case in point ... 19 Crimes Wines. How many of you have actually downloaded the app and done the AR experience? It's ABSOLUTELY COOL. Everyone I show it to (outside of print ... general consumers) is amazed. But nobody knows about it - how to do it- what app - etc.

I saw a display stand at a duty free somewhere in Europe which had the experience explained and a QR code to download the app. I've also seen a tasting event n a local wine shop where the distributor was showing people how to download the app. Education is the key, which is what I think you saw first hand Heidi :)


By Gordon Pritchard on Nov 20, 2019

@ Joe Casey - You managed to spam the thread.
@ Marc Johnson - You're at the wrong part of the alphabet - the thread is about QR rather than AR codes. BTW - the 19 Crimes Wine AR didn't appear to work in Canada so it became an off putting experience especially due having to download a dedicated app which didn't work for anything else.
I agree that education is key, however education doesn't appear to have worked so far (some 20 years).
There are a few applications where QR codes have made sense and are being used. However, I doubt that it will ever see much more than minimal adoption by the general public.


By Gordon Pritchard on Nov 21, 2019

And it looks like there's a contender to replace the failing/failed QR code - "InfoMark" from Xanté - "a simple digital link to quickly access audio, video, PDF, and any other digital content from a printed piece using a desktop computer, smartphone, or tablet."

Video here:

Will it share the same fate?


By Gordon Pritchard on Nov 21, 2019

If the Tinyurl doesn't work try this: http://whattheythink.com/video/98412-xante-introduces-infomark-alternative-qr-codes/?utm_source=newsletter1&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=daily


By Gerhard Maertterer on Nov 27, 2019

Let's see it from a historical point of view. The first QR-Code in Germany was published by newspaper "WELT" on Nov. 9th, 2007. That exactly was the day, when Apple launched the iPhone in Germany. Nobody had a device to scan that code at that time. Three years later most of us had smartphones and were able to scan QR-Codes. Nearly every advertising agency in Germany placed QR-Codes at the bottom of their printed advertisements, because this looked very "innovative". But they failed to program their websites in responsive design. It was impossible to read non-responsive websites on a 3,5 inch-display with humble 480 x 320 pixels resolution. That was the real reason, why QR-codes had a bad start.

At the dawn of the year 2020 we have to re-think without bias: 1. Smart phones and pads have wider screens with higher resolutions. 2. Websites are responsive. 3. In direct marketing QR-codes can lead to personal landing pages, thus helping us to measure the response rates very personally. 4. Online advertising opportunities have been growing for 20 years and are continually dropping in price. With the result that they are used ever more excessively, dropping a veritable flood of advertising onto users. The consequence: Users install adblockers and spam filters, and cancel newsletters. 5. Print mailings do not need explicit permission to be delivered when they are fully addressed. Messages by post are more eye-catching than email in an overflowing inbox. Impressions on paper sink in more intensely than messages on a screen. 6. Print combined with QR-codes is the trigger to lead into the internet.


By Eddy Hagen on Dec 07, 2019

In Belgium we use QR-codes all the time: they are part of making online and mobile payments. So everybody who has done online, mobile payments knows that it's more than just ugly, weird black squares.
And this morning there was an interesting application in my newspaper (the printed version of course): a whole page with charities and QR-codes to make immediate payments (2 euros) to them.
For people who are not used to QR-codes, there is some basic information at the top of the page, stating that when using two common apps, you can make immediate payments to these charities. That's the way to do it. And yes, we will need to repeat how to use it over and over again. But that's just the way we learn: repeating things. Even the simplest thing as one plus one equals two had to be taught, by repeating it over and over again.
You can check a picture of the page here: https://www.insights4print.ceo/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/20191207_QRcodes-for-charity_LR.jpg


By Heidi Tolliver-Walker on Dec 07, 2019

Here in the U.S., we are also seeing QR Codes being used more and more for non-marketing applications, like payments at the Walmart checkout or ticketing. At some point, you would assume that people would make the connection between the QR Codes they use for payments and ticketing and the QR Codes they see on marketing materials. Oh, that code must take me somewhere. The volume of non-marketing QR Code applications is growing, so it will be interesting to see.


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