Report: QR code use rising in unexpected ways

A new report from ScanLife found the number of people scanning QR codes has increased substantially over the past year, though not in places or ways many had envisioned.


Sometimes, research data confirm conventional wisdom. Sometimes they don’t.

Case in point: A new report from ScanLife, a firm that generates and manages QR codes for brands, confirmed that many more people are using QR codes than did so even a year ago. In the second quarter of 2012, the company’s QR codes got 16 million scans, almost 10 million more than what it saw in the second quarter of 2011.

Here’s the unexpected part: 60 percent of the people who scan QR codes do so from home. They’re using mobile technology without leaving the house.

The report also found that people tend to scan codes that lead them to contests or loyalty programs more than codes that go to videos or app downloads. Toys and beauty products are the most-popular industries for QR code scanners. And most people who scan QR codes—more than two-thirds—are men.

For some help making sense of the numbers, Ragan.com asked mobile communication and marketing experts for some analysis.

Popularity explosion

One reason for the huge growth in QR code use is pretty simple, says Shel Holtz of Holtz Communication + Technology.

“They’re getting more and more common,” he says. “Despite the arguments from QR haters that they’ll never take off, you see them everywhere.”

Government agencies such as the TSA and state DMVs use them, Holtz points out, and they’re increasingly on billboards and advertisements in public transportation hubs, in magazines, and in stores.

That near-ubiquity is almost certainly tied to the increasing prevalence of smartphones. According to Nielsen, more than half of U.S. consumers carried smartphones as of May. Dan Slagen, head of advertising at Hubspot, says that growth isn’t happening in the United States alone.

“With more sophisticated technology being in the hands of a larger percentage of the masses, there will be a paralleled growth with QR codes as their general applicability lies with smartphones,” he says.

Holtz adds that many smartphones now come equipped with QR code scanners, so people don’t even have to fish around to find apps with which to scan them.

Jonathan Rick, CEO of The Jonathan Rick Group, says it’s a combination of convenience and trendiness that is driving the numbers up.

“For one, scanning a barcode is easier than typing a URL on tiny keys,” he says. “For another, QR codes benefit from ‘shiny new object’ syndrome. They’re the cool thing to do.”

Lessons for communicators

Rick says QR codes still have a long way to go before becoming totally mainstream—the key question is, “Will my mother use this?” he says—but they should certainly be an option for communicators and marketers, especially if they’re developing contests or loyalty programs.

Everybody wants a deal, Slagen says, so the notion that contests do best hardly surprises him. Other research has shown that discounts and coupons are by far the No. 1 thing people scanning QR codes want.

Nor is Slagen shocked that people scan from home. Citing data from Search Engine Watch, he said nearly 50 percent of the Olympic-related searches people in the United States and United Kingdom have made this year have been through phones and tablets.

“People have their phones with them as they watch TV, are influenced, and then use their phones to search, and the same can be said about QR campaigns that are done well,” he says.

Where campaigns don’t work, Slagen says, is the place lots of brands put them: in subway stations, where people can’t access mobile Internet signals.

“So stop running your QR campaigns in subway stations where smartphones don’t work, understand how people currently see the value of QR codes, and then lead them into the next generation of QR codes,” he says.

Holtz adds that brands simply need to be more creative with how they implement QR codes.

Most implementations are pretty boring, he says, but some, such as this one at a South Korean department store, get people interested by being creative. In another example, a brand of AC adapter puts QR codes on its packaging so people can check whether the adapter works with their laptops. That’s just handy.

Future uses

Some tech experts have already rung the death knell for QR codes, as new technologies such as near-field communication become more widely available, but Holtz says NFC isn’t likely to subsume QR codes.

“You have to be close enough to touch your phone to the item containing the NFC chip, while QR codes can be scanned from a distance,” he says. “Each will wind up being used based on its strength.”

Leslie Handmaker, marketing manager at Next Day Flyers, an online printing service, says QR codes are showing up on more and more print materials, such as brochures, postcards, and business cards. Scanning codes at home isn’t that far-fetched.

“Many of the materials we print are postcard mailers containing QR codes that are sent out to people at their residence,” she says. “We also see freelancers and consultants incorporating QR codes into their business card and postcard layouts to easily direct potential clients to websites and LinkedIn profiles.”

Max Goldberg, a comedian and co-founder of social media marketing firm Shmedia, says QR codes will explode much further once smartphones aren’t limited by 3G wireless Internet.

“A higher-speed mobile Internet will drastically affect the adoption and creativity in use of QR codes,” he says. “Expect that in 2013, or maybe 2014 at the latest. The codes themselves can lead to a much richer experience at that point, because the pipe itself is wider for that experience to travel.”

Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.

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