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Cracking the Code

QR codes are everywhere—but are they working? And are they here to stay?

October 2012 By Sean Norris
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The first time I noticed a QR code, I was in a restaurant. The place had a self-serve soda fountain, and the code was on the side of one of the paper beverage cups. No accompanying text. No indication what the code would do. It was just there. A quirky, black-and-white cipher, haphazardly placed without regard for silly things like “aesthetics” or “cohesive branding.” It was an affront to marketing feng shui. But it was tantalizing. Where was this thing going to take me?

I had to scan it.


This was the kind of viral appeal that helped drive the meteoric rise of the QR code. Early on, when the technology was fresh and new (at least, in a marketing sense; QR codes had been around since 1994, but primarily were used for tracking purposes in the manufacturing industry) there was a novelty value that appealed to our curiosity. We didn’t necessarily know what the codes did, but we were going to scan the heck out of them—because we read about them on the Internet, or because we wanted to be on the leading edge of the next tech craze, or because we were at a restaurant and it was something to do.

Nowadays, QR codes are everywhere. They’re a fixture of new media marketing, popping up on everything from billboards to wine bottle labels to edible cupcake decorations. But how long can their popularity last? Can QR codes continue to be effective marketing tools now that their novelty value has worn off? And if so, what can they do for your business? Read on to find out.

“Pixels on the Page”: Why Content is Key

In the restaurant, I scanned that mysterious QR code hoping it would send me a magical coupon for free soda for life. What I got was considerably less exciting. The code sent me to a generic landing site. No personalization. No free stuff. Just a home page for the soft drink company represented on the cup. It was like the Ovaltine scene from “A Christmas Story”—my decoder ring was the setup for a crummy commercial.

That might have worked in 2010, when QR codes still had cool-new-technology appeal. But now? It’s all about content. “Marketers and information systems people need to make sure they explain why a code should be used and not just expect people to use it because they think it’s cool,” explained John Shanley, president of Labels West, Woodinville, Wash. “The way to get the code scanned is to make sure the consumer understands the value of scanning the code—not just, ‘Oh, that’s kind of neat, let’s scan it.’”


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