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Everything You Wanted To Know About QR Codes

By now, you’ve likely scanned and utilized a QR code. Quick Response codes are two-dimensional barcodes that store information in a square-shaped grid of black squares on a white background. They work by encoding data in a way that can be quickly and easily read by a digital device, typically a smartphone camera.

45 percent of responding shoppers had used a marketing-related QR code in the past three months. The share was highest among respondents aged 18 to 29. It was also found that 59 percent of respondents believed that that QR codes would be a permanent part of using their mobile phone in the future. 

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Initially, reading QR codes required downloading a dedicated app. However, as QR codes became more prevalent, smartphone manufacturers and operating system developers recognized the convenience of having built-in QR code scanning capabilities.

  • For iOS (Apple devices): Apple integrated a native QR code reader into the camera app with the release of iOS 11 in September 2017. This allowed iPhone users to scan QR codes directly using the camera app without needing a third-party application.
  • For Android: The timeline for Android is more varied due to the wide range of manufacturers and custom operating system versions. Some Android phones had built-in QR code scanning in their camera apps earlier than others. Google Lens, launched in 2017, also provided QR code scanning capabilities, though it wasn’t immediately available on all Android devices. It wasn’t until around 2018-2019 that QR code scanning became a more standardized feature across major Android devices, natively through the camera app or Google Lens integration.

Integrating QR code scanning into mobile operating systems significantly boosted the use and popularity of QR codes, making them much more accessible and convenient for the average smartphone user.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of contactless technologies, including QR codes. With the need for social distancing and minimal physical contact, businesses and consumers rapidly embraced QR codes for various applications. This shift has been so significant that by 2024, 80% of order, checkout, and payment services are expected to become contactless.

How QR Codes Work (Technically)

Here’s an example – scan with your smartphone:

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QR codes are designed with a certain level of flexibility and robustness, allowing for variations in their appearance while still being readable. Here’s a breakdown of how QR codes function technically:

  • Structure and Components: A QR code consists of a grid of tiny squares. QR codes can encode various data types, such as text, URLs, or other data formats. Located at three corners of the QR code, these square patterns help the scanner correctly identify and orient the QR code. These alternating black and white cells help the scanner determine the size of each cell in the grid. In more extensive QR codes, this additional pattern helps scanners read the code, even if it’s curved or at an angle.
  • Data and Error Correction Cells: QR codes can store a wide range of information and are designed to be scanned quickly and efficiently. The data is converted into binary (0s and 1s) and then encoded into the QR Code using a special algorithm. The rest of the grid contains both data and information for error correction, ensuring the QR code can be read even if it’s partially damaged or obscured. QR codes have four error correction levels (Low, Medium, Quartile, and High) that can recover 7%, 15%, 25%, and 30% of the code’s data, respectively. This means that a portion of the QR code can be modified (like adding a logo or rounding the edges) without affecting its readability, as long as the modifications stay within the error correction capacity.
  • Design Flexibility: The basic structure of a QR code (finder patterns, alignment patterns, timing patterns, and data cells) must remain recognizable to scanners. However, there is room for creative design within these constraints. Rounded edges or non-traditional shapes can be used if they don’t significantly alter the basic grid structure and the contrast between the dark and light elements is maintained. Logos or images can be placed in the center or other parts of a QR code without disrupting its functionality. This is typically done in the area allocated for data and error correction.
  • Scanning and Decoding: When a QR code is scanned, the device (usually a smartphone camera) detects the finder patterns and correctly aligns the image. The data is converted into binary (0s and 1s). This binary data is then encoded into the QR code using a specific algorithm. The scanner then converts the black and white squares back into binary data. The binary data is processed using the same algorithm used to create the QR code, turning it back into the original data format (like a URL or text).

QR codes can be used for various purposes, from providing quick website access to conveying complex information like boarding passes or payment information. The simplicity, efficiency, and versatility of QR codes have made them popular in numerous applications, from marketing and information sharing to contactless transactions.

Customized QR codes with rounded edges or logos are often used in marketing and branding, as they can be visually appealing and more engaging while retaining their functional purpose. However, the key is to balance aesthetic modifications and the technical integrity of the QR code.

QR Code Usage

The usage and popularity of QR codes have seen a remarkable increase over the past decade, evolving from a novel technology to an integral part of everyday interactions in various sectors. Their growth in popularity can be attributed to several key factors:

  • Global Smartphone Penetration and Internet Access: The surge in smartphone usage globally has been a major driver for the adoption of QR codes. From 3.2 billion in 2016, smartphones are estimated to reach 6.8 billion by 2023, marking a significant annual increase of 4.2%. Additionally, the rise in access to high-speed internet, with over 60% of global internet users accessing the internet via mobile in 2022, has facilitated the widespread use of QR codes.
  • Marketing and Promotions: QR codes have become a powerful tool in marketing. For instance, a survey in the US revealed that 45% of respondents used QR codes to access promotional offers. Predictions indicate that QR code payments in the US might rise by 240% from 2020 to 2025. This trend is reflected in the increasing number of consumers who acknowledge the growth in QR code usage post-pandemic, with 27.95% of US consumers strongly agreeing that their use has increased.
  • Consumer Behavior and Demographics: QR codes are used across a wide age range, predominantly by individuals aged 24 to 54. The versatility of QR codes in marketing, education, and security, among other fields, caters to a broad demographic, further boosting their adoption.
  • Restaurant Industry: Restaurants have adopted QR codes extensively for contactless menus and payments. Reports indicate that 33% of restaurant owners acknowledge QR codes benefit their business. This sector’s anticipated growth in QR code payments is estimated at 240% by 2025.
  • Food and Beverage Packaging: QR codes on food and beverage packaging provide comprehensive information, suggest recipes, or showcase product ranges. In Canada, for instance, 57% of consumers have used QR codes on food packaging to get specific product information.
  • Augmented Reality (AR): QR codes facilitate access to AR, enhancing the user experience by integrating real-time information with real-world objects. The AR market, projected to be worth between USD 70 billion and USD 75 billion by 2023, is expected to increase QR code usage as it enables easy access to AR content.

QR Code Best Practices

One of my favorite bits about QR codes comes from Scott Stratten. It’s an oldie, but goodie..

Best practices for QR code utilization in marketing and engagement strategies include:

  • Short and Simple URLs: URL shorteners can compress lengthy links, making the QR code less complex and easier to scan. Shortened URLs also look cleaner and are more trustworthy to users.
  • UTM Parameters for Tracking: Append UTM parameters to URLs for tracking purposes. This allows you to monitor the effectiveness of your QR code campaigns by tracking clicks, sources, and conversions in your analytics tools.
  • Mobile-Friendly Landing Pages: Ensure the destination page is optimized for mobile devices, as most QR code scans will be performed with a smartphone.
  • Clear Call-to-Action (CTA): Place a clear CTA near the QR code, instructing users on what to do or expect when they scan the code (e.g., Scan to get a discount or Scan to view the menu).
  • Test the QR Code: Before printing or distributing, test it with multiple devices and apps to ensure it works as intended.
  • High Contrast and Visibility: Ensure the QR code has high contrast (traditionally black on white) and is visible and unobstructed.
  • Sufficient Size and Padding: The QR code should be large enough to easily scan from a reasonable distance. A good rule of thumb is the scanning distance is ten times the width of the QR code. Also, include padding around the QR code to prevent scanning issues.
  • Error Correction Level: Choose an appropriate error correction level. Higher levels allow for a greater part of the code to be obscured but create a denser QR code.
  • Aesthetic Integration: Integrate the QR code into the design of your marketing materials. It can be branded with colors and logos as long as the code remains scannable.
  • Accessibility: Place QR codes in locations that are easily accessible and where scanning is convenient for users.
  • Security Measures: Use secure URLs (https) to protect user privacy and ensure that the content linked to the QR code is safe from malicious content.
  • Validity Period: If the QR code is for a temporary campaign, indicate its validity period to avoid user frustration with expired links.
  • Education: Since not all users may be familiar with QR codes, provide brief instructions where necessary.
  • Legal Compliance and Privacy: Ensure your QR code campaigns comply with data protection regulations and respect user privacy.
  • Maintenance and Updates: Have a system to update the destination URLs without changing the QR code, especially for codes in permanent locations.
  • Versatility and Creativity: Think beyond URLs. QR codes can be used for direct mail, vCards, Wi-Fi passwords, app downloads, or even augmented reality experiences.
  • Analytics and Adaptation: Regularly analyze the performance data and user feedback to make necessary adjustments and improve the user experience.

Following these best practices will help you leverage QR codes effectively, ensuring they are valuable for engagement and conversion in your sales and marketing efforts.

The growth in QR code usage is multifaceted, driven by technological advancements, changes in consumer behavior, and innovative applications across various industries. Their ease of use, versatility, and the growing need for contactless interactions continue to propel their popularity globally.

Douglas Karr

Douglas Karr is CMO of OpenINSIGHTS and the founder of the Martech Zone. Douglas has helped dozens of successful MarTech startups, has assisted in the due diligence of over $5 bil in Martech acquisitions and investments, and continues to assist companies in implementing and automating their sales and marketing strategies. Douglas is an internationally recognized digital transformation and MarTech expert and speaker. Douglas is also a published author of a Dummie's guide and a business leadership book.

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