QR codes — ready for the mainstream?

QR codes ­— those little two dimensional barcodes — are all the rage among marketers today. From Times Square to t-shirts, they are popping up everywhere. But are they a passing fad? Are they ready for the mainstream? And even more basically — what are they in the first place?

What is a QR code?

QR code is short for “quick response code.” Simply, it’s a new form of barcode that allows for a lot of interesting data to be encoded.

But what marketers are really excited about is that for the first time, these barcodes can be scanned by the masses using a smartphone camera and a piece of software.


Several competing QR code formats — the top two are the most popular currently.

So what kind of data can be encoded exactly? Well, the potential is quite endless, since the largest codes can hold 4,296 alphanumeric characters. But here are some very specific types of data you can encode today:

  • Website URLs (including custom personalized URLs, or URLs with valuable source code tracking data).
  • Video URLs (triggering an online video to play)
  • Contact information (i.e. a vCard or phone number)
  • Start a phone call (want them to call your number?)
  • Start a SMS text message (although the user has to hit send)

If you want to learn more about what QR codes are, Wikipedia has a great article you should check out.

Are QR codes ready for the mainstream?

The short answer is no. Here’s why:

Lack of awareness and understanding among the general public

The general population doesn’t know what a QR code is when they see it. More importantly, they don’t know how to use it, nor do they have the understanding of what it could do for them.

Competing standards

There are several different competing standards (check out www.microsoft.com/tag for Microsoft’s version, for instance), and until the standards war shakes out, it’ll be a while before it’ll be usable for the general population. For a recent analogy, think Hi-def DVD vs. Blu Ray — it’s taken a while for that format war to shake out, and now we’re only beginning to see the signs of more general population adoption.

Lack of an install base

For the most part, you can’t just hold your cell phone camera up and the QR code works. You have to be savvy enough (and intrigued enough) to download a QR code reader app. (And remember, you have to download the right app for the right QR code format.)

Until it’s as simple as holding the phone camera up to a QR code and it just works, QR codes won’t take off in the mainstream. Newer phones and operating systems, such as the Android operating system, are starting to include QR code reading capability into some phones, so signs are positive here.

It requires a smartphone, internet access and mobile optimized content

Not everyone has the necessary technology to use QR codes — according to the recently published ComScore 2010 Mobile Year in Review (pdf) 27 percent of mobile phones in the United States are smartphones (though the same report did state that 48 percent of mobile phone owners have web browsing capabilities).

You also have to ask yourself: Is the content I want to send people to via a QR code mobile friendly? Because, at this point, you can guarantee that most of your visitors to that code will be using a mobile browser. And sending people to a full-featured website designed for desktop computers is a poor user experience for people on a mobile browser.

How are QR codes being used today?

Currently, one of the most interesting uses for QR codes is in guerilla/teaser-type advertising among younger urban demographics. The QR code has a mystique about it that makes it attractive to early adopters and fans of the latest tech.

There are other emerging uses, such as enhancing a physical experience with other content. Consider being at a store looking at a product, and being able to scan a QR code to view a video review of that product in use.

In July and August this year, expect to see a flood of QR codes. Why? Because the USPS just announced that they will be giving a 3-percent discount off of postage during those months. The problem for nonprofits is they probably won’t benefit, since you have to use an indicia and send mail via First Class or Standard Class Mail.

But what if I want to try QR codes now?

As you can tell by now, I believe there is limited potential for nonprofits and QR codes at this point. But depending on your goals and audience, there are definitely some opportunities.


  • Make sure your content is mobile-friendly. People are going to be using their mobile phones, so please don’t send them to your full-featured website that is impossible to navigate on a smartphone. Your landing page or other content needs to be mobile-friendly.
  • Track how many QR code scans you get. How will you know whether your QR code worked? You’ve got to embed a source code or URL shortener to track how many QR code scans you get. If you use Google Analytics for instance, you can add something like ?utm_source=poster&utm_medium=qr_code&utm_campaign=campaign_name to the end of your URL, and then you can later examine how many people scanned your QR code. Also, some nonprofit websites can capture source codes in the donation process — if so, use that. Finally, if you don’t have the first two, just use a URL shortener like bit.ly. By using a URL shortener, you can still send people to whatever URL you want — you just pass them through bit.ly, and can then view how many people used the bit.ly URL.

What do you think? Have you used QR codes successfully or unsuccessfully? I would love to hear about it!

Dave Raley
Director of Digital Marketing