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.