A few weeks ago, I wrote a post that received a tremendous amount of traction. The topic was how QR codes have the potential, not just to create marketing opportunities, but to steal printers’ business. The comments exploded, so clearly it touched a nerve. Based on that interest, I’d like to follow up with some observations.

It all started because I’d visited a local winery and noted that the shop no longer had printed sales sheets or menus for its wine “flights” and dining options. The winery posted a QR code at the front desk instead. This allowed the shop to continually update its menus without reprinting, and it found that because its clientele was younger and more environmentally conscious (in other words, they liked the paperless angle), they embraced the use of the codes without fuss.

This winery’s customers are not unique. So why did QR codes take hold here and not necessarily elsewhere? Because the winery didn’t switch based on the benefits of QR codes alone. It switched because, during the COVID-19 restrictions, it had to move its tastings and dining outside. The paper menus were flying away, and clients didn’t like it. Hence it transitioned to a menu accessed via QR code, and once visitors started using it, they got used to it. QR code usage stuck.

The transition was a purely practical one initially, but that transition will stay based on results.

It strikes me because I regularly hear industry experts talking about how printers need to see themselves as deliverers of marketing communications rather than simply as printers. QR codes, they say, should be one of many channels that printers are prepared to deliver based on customer need.

Yet the concept of “marketing services provider” has never really taken off. Sure, some printers have made the transition and even changed their names to reflect their broader expertise, but it’s not the norm. Therefore, seeing QR codes as one of many channels a printer is prepared to offer is not necessarily the ideal way to think about them.

QR code use is growing, but it’s from the brand side of things. What we—and brands—are finding is that QR codes are useful gateways to things customers want, such as experiences and discounts. However, unlike years past when marketers were encouraged to include both a QR code and other pathways to the same content, QR codes now are often being used as the only gateways to that content. Hence more people are using them since they are the only way to get what they want.

As Will Gee, CEO of BaltiVirtual, a Baltimore, Md., creative agency serving brands such as HBO, PayPal, and Under Armour (and which uses QR codes as gateways to augmented reality experiences), notes, “As a consumer, I don’t care about QR codes until they get between me and my beer.”

In other words, the benefits of QR codes may not be enough to get clients to adopt them. It’s helpful to have a specific need that the code is in a unique position to meet. When the need is specific enough and strong enough, the draw to that content will prompt—and maintain—the use of the code.

In the comments section of my earlier post, one reader noted the use of QR codes in place of menus in Nashville and, as at the winery, they were the only access to the information diners wanted. Guess what? Diners used them. I saw the same thing at a restaurant in Frederick, Md., a few weeks ago. If the draw to the content is strong enough, people will use QR codes. After they’ve done it once, they’ll continue to do so without fuss as long as the user experience is positive on the back end.

That said, here are some takeaways from the comments to the post:

  • Both printers and brands need to be opportunists. Not every project needs a QR code. In fact, the right fit between need and QR code might be few and far between. Instead of thinking you have to try to “sell” your clients on QR codes as part of their marketing, look for unique pockets of opportunity.  
  • Make sure those experiences on the back end are worth scanning. Ensure that the content is mobile-friendly. Don’t make users have to pinch and squeeze to see the content.
  • When clients are using QR codes (even if those codes are replacing certain types of print work), figure out ways to recapture (or grow) that business on the back end. Once people land on whatever site or experience you have designed, encourage your customers to ask for their follow-up contact information, sign up for their direct mail or email list, or join a loyalty program. This is good marketing for them and more business for you.

The point is, even if your customers are the ones driving the use of QR in their pieces, you still have a role to play. Encourage them to think beyond the immediate and, as those in the comments pointed out, how they can use that experience to further engage those customers in a “next step” that ultimately leads to the opportunity for you to stay involved and even grow your relationship with that customer.