Forget the bad press, the QR code seems like such a clever idea: Like a smarter barcode for the 21st century, it hooks up through your smartphone or computer's camera to some code that reads it, and translates its spotty pattern into a URL, or a phone number, or a passage of text, or a digital business card—all instantaneously. They've been used all over the globe for ages, but the tech is having a moment in the U.S.
Check out Victoria's Secret's new "Sexier Than Skin" ad campaign—I bet it already grabbed your eye. It's new, undeniably clever, certain to tempt many a viewer into trying QR codes in a way that perhaps no other ad ever has, and it's so "meta" (with the tech itself acting as part of the visual joke) it's hard to imagine the ad campaign working any other way. By holding a smartphone up to the ad, snapping the QR code and waiting to see what happens, the interested "viewer" is automagically taken to a URL for an image that fills in the gap, not with saucy pink pixels but with saucy underwear.
Then check out the odd news from a recent survey by Vizibility Inc. of legal professionals in the U.S. in July and August. Among the various results: 85% of legal marketers surveyed were aware of QR code technology; 35% already use them; and a further 45% plan on using them in the next 12 months. That means 80% of legal professionals could be using QR codes inside a year. In the data-rich world of lawyers in the U.S., the codes are useful for marketing (so a simple advert can link to rich biographical data and contact info) and also enable a simple paper business card to link to a website, or transmit useful contact details directly to a prospective client's cell phone.
This summer that most august of organizations the United States Postal Service ran a two-month promotional campaign to try to convince its commercial mailer clients of the benefits of using QR as a marketing tool, and just the other day the agency's manager of marketing mail deemed the campaign a success, noting he was "very pleased" and that results beat expectations. The USPS had been offering a 3% posting discount on letters and flat parcels for clients who put a QR code on the front or inside the mail—a bold step, but it's designed to demonstrate the continuing usefulness of physical mail in an increasingly online era, because commercial mailing partners can actually add value to their packages from an end-client point of view.
A firm called Pet Check is taking dog walking into the 21st century, with clients able to track their pooch's progress around the walking route online, via GPS. QR code tags are a crucial part of the model, enabling hassled walkers to quickly "check in" a dog and check them out again at the end of the walk. The firm just launched in California, and has plans to go nationwide.
Quaker, a food firm you may not necessarily think of as being hugely 21st century, has just launched a QR code-enabled promotional campaign to push sales of its Chewy Granola bars via a digital personal message from Nick Jonas. The clip is accessed by a QR code printed on the box, and the campaign's pinnacle is a personalized message to the buyer's child for a birthday or good luck message in which Jonas uses the child's name.
Temple City Chamber of Commerce just installed its first QR signpost—the first of many planned—as a way of sharing information about the city, and navigating tourists and locals to relevant parts of the city's website. Microsoft is embracing the tech as a dynamic and super-swift way to link game data from a console like the Xbox 360 to partner games on a Windows Phone smartphone. And there are countless other companies of all sorts, right down to real estate agents in the U.K., inspired by rapid adoption by U.S. firms, that're rushing to embrace the tech.
There's one simple reason for this: The smartphone revolution. We're buying them by the billion, and pretty much every one comes with a camera that's good enough to quickly and easily snap a photo of a QR code and pass the data to a relevant app—instantly linking a real-world piece of data to a digital portal for enhanced content. Yes the technology is about to be replaced—with a bevy of alternatives, from RFID-tagged stickers, posters, and products to real-world object recognition in augmented reality smartphone apps. But QR codes, now seemingly booming in the U.S., aren't likely to be going anywhere soon.
Compared to some alternatives they're super-simple to integrate into products (requiring merely a spatter or two of ink, and thus easily incorporated into typical printing runs) and cheap too, especially compared to RFID systems that typically need a fine wire loop antenna and a tiny slice of silicon chip. And as we highlighted previously, in comparison to AR object recognition in which a real world object is unidentifiably "tagged" until it reveals itself in an app, QR codes are visible and self-advertising...consumers know what to do with 'em. Millions of consumer, in fact—14 million American souls in June 2011 alone.