It looks like a small black and white puzzle, tucked away on product boxes or mysteriously appearing on a magazine page. For most marketers, solving the riddle of how to use QR codes in marketing is much more of a puzzle.

We are here to help you make sense of it.

How Do QR Codes Work?

A QR (“Quick Response”) code is a two-dimensional barcode that can be scanned by smartphone cameras or other devices. The scan reads the black and white squares as data, which can then be translated into a web page, text message, or other action.

Compared to a typical bar code, QR codes can hold 200 times more alphanumeric characters – over 4,200 in total.

This makes adding a website URL easy.

History of QR Codes

QR Codes were first introduced in Japan in 1994 as a way to track vehicle parts during manufacturing. The inventor came up with the idea while playing a game called “Go”, which is popular in Asia and is one of the oldest continually popular board games played in the world.

It wasn’t until 2009 that QR Codes started to gain popularity in the Western world.

The commercial and marketing use of this new technology became more and more popular as mobile phone cameras and operating software improved, but many consumers did not understand how to use them. Adoption of QR code technology has been slow.

Until 2017, smartphone users needed a separate app to read QR codes, which did not lend itself well to marketing campaigns based on quick “scan-on-the-go” ideas.

QR codes were “resurrected” in 2017 when the Apple iOS 11 update included native support in the camera app for QR codes, eliminating this need for a separate app. Google’s Android followed in 2018.

QR codes in the COVID-19 era

In Asia, compared to the West, QR codes had been embraced much more quickly as a technology for small, peer-to-peer payments, like Venmo. Small businesses and restaurants were faster to accept payments via a mobile device.

In many places, you could tip your server by scanning a QR code on their name badge.

As people around the world were distanced during the COVID-19 pandemic, this safer and more sanitary form of payment and link sharing gained traction. Dining in restaurants offered fewer points of contact and reduced paper menu waste with contactless ordering from menus via QR codes. Other innovations arose.

And, as people have gotten used to QR codes in everyday life, the opportunity to use them in marketing campaigns has grown as well.

Free Beverages with Advertiser QR Codes

I recently had a conversation with a beverage-distribution company that used QR codes in a unique way. They gave away drinks on the sidewalks of major cities and charged advertisers to put their artwork on the packaging of each drink container. Along with the artwork was a QR code to drive people to the advertiser’s website.

The idea was simple: Thirsty people would find it hard to say no to a free drink on the street. If they found the advertisements on the drinks compelling, they’d likely scan the QR code with their mobile device and learn about the company. Tying that initial landing page to a compelling call to action could then be used to capture new leads.

Dennis Consorte, Digital Marketing and Leadership Consultant for Startups, Snackable Solutions


QR codes take over Super Bowl 57

With Super Bowl commercial advertising fees costing up to $7 million per 30 seconds, businesses understood that to get their money’s worth, they’d need to maximize exposure in every place they could.

Whereas last year seemed to be the commercial year of the crypto-currency, it was hard not to notice the multiple Super Bowl ads that featured QR codes to drive viewers to their products. 

This makes sense, considering Coinbases’ bouncing QR code Super Bowl spot was one of the most talked about commercials of 2022. In fact, Sky Media revealed in 2021 that the success rate of “QR codes in TV ads is between 0.3% and 0.8%.”

For 2023, one of the more confusing QR code-related ads came from Web3 gaming startup Limit Break, who spent $6.5 million on an early Super Bowl commercial offering free NFT’s if you scanned the code. Even though people struggled to download the NFT and were misdirected to the CEO’s Twitter page, over $1.3 million worth of trades have gone down since the ad first aired.

In a blink and you’ll miss it addition, the Avocados from Mexico Super Bowl commercial featured a sneaky QR code underneath their Times Square billboard. Clicking on the link sends users directly to the Avocados from Mexico website alongside a longer version of the Super Bowl ad.

Even Fox television shows got in on the action with Joel McHale’s Animal Control Super Bowl ad featuring a QR code taking scanners to a longer sneak peek of the sitcom.

As marketers, a common belief is that it takes customers “seven touches” before someone will act on your product. While a Super Bowl commercial only lasts 30 seconds, using that time to drive people to your website is a brilliant way to get customers to interact with your business.

Now more than ever, is the time to introduce QR codes to your marketing strategy.

Business Cards with Topic-Specific QR Codes

We print address labels with QR codes that direct people to web pages on different topics. Address labels are exactly the right size to fit on the back of a business card, so when our sales team is out at conferences, they can give prospects their card with the code for the topic they are interested in.

This replaces carrying sales sheets or expecting them to look for the topic on our website, and it’s both simple and effective.

Jennifer McAlpine, Product Marketing Manager, Benchmark

How To Create a QR Code from a URL

The technology to easily create QR codes has improved as well.

A quick Google search for “create a QR code” will likely land you on a site that delivers what it promises in a sea of popup and display ads. Some will offer customization options to help deliver a nicer-looking square.

Be careful, though – some might create phishing scams or other security issues.

As an alternative, Google Chrome users can click the “share” icon from the URL bar and see an option for “Create QR Code”. Desktop users will no doubt notice the dinosaur graphic in the middle of the pattern, but the mobile version does not have this dinosaur feature.

For those committed to marketing with QR codes, a paid service is a modest cost that can ensure functionality, flexibility, and security.

Captive Audience QR Codes in Restrooms

Whenever I visit my local pub and use the restroom, I see QR codes on the back of the stall door, usually combined with an eye-catching poster and often some humor as well.

I think these would work great for a wide variety of local businesses, including rideshare companies, beauty parlors, gyms, and local event promotions. I actually love the idea of advertising on bathroom doors and in waiting rooms because, unlike with other forms of advertising where people can click away or turn the page, you have a captive audience.

Chloe Brittain, Founder, Monday Roadmap

Dynamic vs Static QR codes

There is a simple difference. Dynamic QR codes have fixed information, like a URL, that never changes.

Dynamic QR codes use a shortened URL to redirect, and this can be changed within the QR code service. So if something is printed on a label and needs to be changed in the future to point to a new location, it can be done easily without reprinting.

Direct-Response Booking via QR Codes

One campaign that stood out to me involved enabling our fitness business clients’ customers to book trial classes by scanning a QR code. We embedded these codes into our clients’ marketing materials, and when scanned, they directed users straight to a booking page on our cloud-based calendar, TeamUp.

This ‘scan-to-book’ strategy was a fantastic example of ‘direct-response marketing,’ a term we marketers use to describe strategies that prompt immediate action. It was a win-win situation: our clients got increased bookings, and their customers enjoyed a seamless booking experience.

Laia Quintana, Head of Marketing and Sales, TeamUp

What Else Can You Direct Users To with QR Codes Besides Web Pages?

Use QR codes in your marketing plan to have users:

  • Click to dial
  • Add events to a calendar
  • Messenger apps & SMS text
  • Send an email
  • Download app
  • View location
  • Social media pages
  • Product pages or coupon codes
  • Video/YouTube marketing
  • Menus or service lists
Track All of Your QR Codes

Anytime you’re making a link to your site, you have a tracking opportunity. First, add campaign tracking code to your link using a URL builder. Then use that link with the when creating the QR code. Voila! Now you can see every visit to your site that the QR code generated. Find that traffic in your campaign reports

Andy Crestodina, Co-Founder / Chief Marketing Officer, Orbit Media Studios

image courtesy of Andy at Orbit Media Studios

A Quick Marketing Reminder

Studies have shown that it takes 5-7 brand exposures before customers make a purchase. In the mortgage industry, that number is 58 touches before the final close!

Using QR codes, like most marketing tools, is best used as part of an overall strategy.

Keep in mind, however, that QR codes should not be used in ads that will pop up on a users mobile device. You cannot scan a QR code with your phone if that QR code is on your phone.

The Purchase Process: A Refresher

There are many variations, but typically the consumer purchase process comes down to the following steps:

  1. Awareness: The consumer becomes aware of a problem or need.
  2. Interest: The consumer begins to develop an interest in a product or service that can solve their problem.
  3. Evaluation: The consumer compares their options and begins to develop a preference for a particular product or service.
  4. Purchase: The consumer takes action and buys the product or service.
  5. Post-purchase: The consumer uses and evaluates, and reviews or recommends QR codes can be used in most of these steps, some more effectively than others.
Behind-the-Scenes Videos via Clothing Tags

Here’s a fun twist we introduced with QR codes in one of our Total Shape campaigns. We were launching a new line of workout gear, and instead of just showcasing it in traditional ads, we embedded QR codes on the clothing tags.

When customers scanned the QR code, they were directed to exclusive behind-the-scenes videos of our athletes rocking the gear during their training sessions. It was a sneak peek into the real-world performance of our products. Customers loved the interactive element, feeling a deeper connection to the brand and the gear. It was a bit like having a backstage pass to the fitness fashion show.

James Cunningham, Senior Coach, Total Shape

Generate Awareness with QR Codes

Awareness can be generated in many ways, but some common methods are paid advertising, public relations, or word-of-mouth.

For QR codes, some ways to generate awareness include:

Using QR codes in direct mailers

Most direct mail pieces are not saved, even if they generate interest on their own. Mix in a QR code with your CRM or appointment setting app (like Calendly) to allow recipients to book an appointment quickly before tossing or losing that direct mail piece. Have an app? Include the QR code to download your app to make interacting with your business a breeze!

Using QR codes on business cards

Link to your personal page, social profile, or business website to give people more information quickly about your background or company. This is great for networking events. Using a QR code on your business card also makes it easier for those who receive your card to easily take action like make a social media connection or visit your site right away. The easier and faster things are, the more likely your connections are to take action and not forget because they have to do it later.

Using QR codes in print advertising, such as magazines or newspapers

While print is declining, it is not dead by any means. It makes sense, however, to augment your print investment with a digital component. With QR codes, you also have more room for creativity and imagery, leaving the text or fine print for a landing page.

Adding QR codes as a graphic on business vehicles

Our office is in downtown Chicago. If you are like me, you have ample opportunity for thought and reflection as you are stuck in traffic that doesn’t seem to move. Take advantage of that captive audience by adding a QR code to your vehicle graphic.

Passengers (and unfortunately some drivers) who are in the market for your product or service can use their phones to get more information. Because those potential customers often consider driving idle time, try using a QR code with a “scan to call” feature so that they can book an appointment from their front seat.

Also consider pedestrians that may be interested in your business. Food trucks often move, let your regulars view your location schedule with a QR code, or make your menu easy to see for those at the end of the line or passing by with a large QR code they can scan from a distance.

Generate Interest with QR Codes

Once someone knows you, QR codes can help you persuade them to purchase. Consider the following ways you can influence that decision:

Front door signage

You might not be open 24 hours a day or on the weekends, but people passing by or checking out your location can find information about products or services if you include a QR code on front-door signage. This is great for restaurants also who want to show their whole menu but have limited window space.

Trade show booths and signage

Trade shows can be hectic and many businesses spend a ton to get just the right spot or the booth that stands out. Add QR codes to sponsorship signage to help attendees find your booth, or to your booth signage to help them get more information about the products and services you are offering.

Here it is also a great idea to allow people passing by to book an appointment or demo, or even to enter a drawing or raffle with the aid of a landing page.

Help Customers Evaluate Your Product or Service with QR Codes

In evaluating a purchase, customers might want to know:

  • How your product works (or how your service is delivered)
  • What the return policy or guarantees are
  • How others have rated your product or service
  • Link to a video that shows how to use the product (or even an unboxing)

Including a QR code on your packaging or service list is one way to do this – it’s like giving the customer a free sample before they even make a purchase.

For local businesses like restaurants or those who have a retail storefront, a QR code with a link to a map can help customers evaluate if you are convenient to visit, and then subsequently plan their route.

Let Customers Purchase with a QR Code

This one is straightforward.

  1. Link to your product page.
  2. Link to your online ordering.
  3. Allow customers to make payments with a QR code link.
  4. Tell customers where the closest retail store is that they can buy your product.

Follow Up Post-Purchase with QR Codes

After customers have made a purchase, you can use QR codes on packaging, directions, or receipts to:

  • Get feedback with a survey to improve future marketing efforts
  • Provide warranty information or product manuals
  • Ask for product or business reviews

Savvy marketers who are confident in their product or services can also create marketing automations that work with referral or rewards programs.

What’s Next for QR Codes in Marketing?

QR codes have many applications in marketing, and it’s not hard to understand why they are becoming such a popular choice with innovative marketing teams.

So, what’s next?

Are wearable technology items like Google Glass going to make a comeback? There are big privacy concerns, not to mention people still seem to think they look weird. But, if they do resurface, QR codes seem like a natural fit, as someone can get instant information or take action without even getting their mobile device out.

I can see screens that can dynamically generate QR codes for special purposes. For example, asking a question to a voice recognition artificial intelligence system on a storefront or kiosk could allow a display to show a QR code that would send the individual to a web page with the answer.

Marketers are talking about the “metaverse” and virtual reality marketing opportunities. It’s hard not to think about the possibilities of QR codes and this new frontier. 

Can QR codes take you to new locations in the metaverse? Grant you VIP access to virtual parties or meetings? Can QR codes based inside virtual reality hangouts function in the same ways as the ones in real life do?

Conclusion

QR codes are a versatile tool that can be used in a variety of marketing situations. They are affordable, easy to use, and can be placed in a variety of locations.

They connect the world of digital with the world of traditional media.

QR codes can be used to increase awareness of your product or service, to help customers make purchase decisions, and to follow up with customers after a purchase. As technology continues to evolve, the potential uses for QR codes in marketing will likely increase.

Are you using QR codes in your marketing? What has been your experience? Let us know in the comments!

author avatar
Elijah Litscher
Elijah Litscher is an author, educator, entrepreneur, and marketing innovator with over 18 years of experience in digital marketing. He has traveled extensively as a professional speaker while educating thousands of business owners across the country in online marketing best practices. Elijah is committed to empowering small and medium-sized businesses to reach their full potential online as founder and Chief Digital Strategist at The Loop Marketing Inc. in Chicago, Illinois.