QR codes, once believed to be a long-dead relic of the early 2010s, have found a new lease of life in the coronavirus pandemic. How are they being used for innovation in 2020, and could they stand a better chance of succeeding this time?

Of all the events that might have been on the list of ‘things that are likely to happen in 2020’, few could have predicted that “QR codes make a comeback” would be on there.

Even those who have been predicting a marketing comeback for the beleaguered QR code (at least beleaguered in the west – elsewhere, it’s a different story) would hardly have thought that this might come about as the result of a global pandemic propelling contactless technology into the spotlight.

But then again, who could have foreseen the vast majority of what has happened this year?

Just eight months ago, I included the prediction that QR codes would be the future of marketing at the top of a roundup of ‘Seven technology and marketing predictions from the 2010s that aged badly’, calling them “probably the most memorable and most-ridiculed fad of the early 2010s, and the one that will go down in marketing history as a spectacular flop”.

I’ve covered QR codes at various points over the years since I began writing for a B2B marketing audience, and at one time I also anticipated a comeback – but by the end of 2019, with no sign of the promised revival in sight, I felt confident enough to write, “We probably won’t see QR codes making a sudden comeback at any time in the 2020s.”

It’s always entertaining to be completely and utterly wrong about something. QR codes are now being pressed into service across the world in a range of ways aimed at combating the pandemic: from tracing potential sources of infection, to implementing “contactless” alternatives to things that are likely to spread the disease.

And just last week, Instagram threw its hat into the QR code ring with a feature that will generate a QR code leading back to your Instagram profile, designed to be compatible with any third-party camera or QR code scanning app. Although a number of social networks have similar features, Instagram is only the second social network – after Twitter – to use universal QR codes instead of a proprietary variant like Snapcodes (or Nametags, which the QR code feature is replacing).

With QR codes proliferating across the hospitality and healthcare industries and one of the most popular social networks throwing its weight behind them, could they be here to stay (for real this time)?

Let’s take a look at how QR codes are being used in 2020, and how the current QR renaissance might differ from the early 2010s in crucial ways…

How are QR codes being used in 2020?

Healthcare

As the coronavirus pandemic gripped China, Chinese authorities began to press QR codes into service as a tool for tracking and monitoring the movements and infection status of millions of residents. The system, which requires citizens venturing out in public to scan a QR code when entering and leaving a venue, along with having their temperature taken, was pioneered in Wuhan and later adopted by more than 100 Chinese cities.

While the use of QR codes in China is nothing new, as they are embedded into daily life as a means of linking the online and offline worlds, the use of QR codes for contact tracing has now been adopted across the world – from Singapore to New South Wales, Paris to California. Even brands, such as Woolworths supermarket in Australia, have adopted QR code-based contact tracing on an opt-in basis.

While the approach taken to contact tracing, and particularly data collection, can vary from country to country, QR codes are widely regarded as a straightforward way to make these programs possible.

QR codes are demonstrating their versatility and usefulness in other parts of healthcare, too. London-based digital health company TestCard has developed a non-invasive urinary tract infection (UTI) testing kit that can be used at home, and which includes a scannable QR code that tells the accompanying app what type of test is being carried out.

Educational health video provider VUCA Health has also launched an initiative that uses QR codes to more easily connect patients with vaccine information. Called VaccineSheets.com, it allows pharmacists and healthcare providers to display a QR code for the vaccine about to be administered that will take patients to a virtual vaccine information sheet on their mobile device. This allows patients to access vaccine information more efficiently and hygienically, at a crucial time for vaccine administration.

As remote and digital healthcare treatments become more and more commonplace, the QR code is well-placed to play a larger role in connecting the online and offline worlds for patients: facilitating app downloads, tracking infections, providing access to online resources and more.

Hospitality

The beleaguered hospitality sector is rapidly embracing QR codes as a key component to venues safely reopening. In restaurants, where passing around a physical menu is now a potential vector for infection, QR codes have become commonplace as a means of accessing a digital menu, scanned via a sticker or a disposable card.

Adopting ‘contactless’ digital menus comes with a number of advantages for restaurants: they can be made interactive, quickly updated to reflect dishes as they are added or sell out, and feature coupons or special offers. Some digital menu platforms also allow for data analysis. But typing in a webpage URL or downloading an associated app introduces a lot of friction to the process of using these menus – which is where QR codes come in, instantly taking the user to the relevant page when they are scanned.

QR codes can even be used to handle contactless ordering and payment on top of displaying the menu. GoTab is one such solution that uses QR codes to facilitate ordering and mobile payment, and the company has seen a surge in adoption thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, reportedly tripling its number of clients in the 30 days leading up to 20th April.

Restaurant owners report that customers are being won over by these newfound applications of QR codes. Josh Phillips, the owner of a Washington, D.C. area restaurant that is using GoTab, told Digital Trends, “[One guest] interacted with it and changed her tune to ‘I know I was hating on this QR code thing, but this is actually great. Why doesn’t everyone do this?’

“That’s a pattern I see repeatedly with the few people that have had complaints,” he added. “By the end of the meal, they are always on board and think it is great.”

Hotels are making use of QR codes for everything from restaurant menus to drinks lists and booking information. One platform, Kontactless, which has been adopted by Hyatt, Courtyard by Marriott and Hilton at select locations, uses QR codes to enable guests to place orders for food, beverages and merchandise that are then delivered to their location on the property.

Hilton hotels are also using QR codes to make information about their CleanStay program available to guests, by including codes on signage and notices throughout the hotels that guests can scan to learn more about cleaning procedures and protocols.

QR codes are even being used to solve the problems presented by common points of contact in eateries like self-serve beverage machines. In July, the Coca-Cola Company upgraded its Coca-Cola Freestyle machines to allow for contactless activation via a QR code on the machine’s screen. Coca-Cola has 52,000 of these machines distributed across the United States, 78% of which are located in restaurant venues.

This makes for a major application of QR code technology – and an important solution for Coca-Cola to implement in order to get the machines up and running again. While the technology is being rolled out gradually, all 52,000 machines are expected to have the new contactless solution by 31st December.

Social media

Instagram’s new QR code feature will help businesses encourage visits to their Instagram profiles by giving them a scannable code that they can print on everything from marketing material to signs to vehicles and the sides of buildings.

With the renewed interest in QR codes brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, there is a good chance that they will catch on with consumers, which bodes well for brands for whom Instagram is an important site of customer engagement, as well as those that use it to sell products.

In China, businesses commonly use QR codes to share links to their WeChat profiles, where they can engage and market to consumers (almost all of whom use the app). Mark Zuckerberg is reported to be trying to emulate WeChat through his roster of social networks, so it would come as no surprise if WeChat’s usage of QR codes served as an inspiration for Instagram’s similar feature.

WhatsApp is also due to roll out a similar feature that allows contacts to be added by scanning a QR code – meaning that we could start to see this becoming a normal way of sharing social media profile information. And if QR code scanning becomes normalised enough, businesses may re-adopt them as a means of sharing homepage links or app downloads.

Why QR codes might have a better chance of success in 2020

The reasons why QR codes fell flat in the early 2010s (again, at least in the west) are many and varied, ranging from clunky implementation to an undeveloped mobile web.

The idea behind QR codes – a printed pattern that when scanned by a mobile device, can bring up a webpage, app screen or online experience, thus seamlessly linking the online and offline worlds – is solid, which is why QR codes have become so ubiquitous in China and other parts of East and Southeast Asia, and why they’re taking off again in the west now. It was the execution – from the technology behind QR codes to the way they were applied – that was lacking.

Since the early 2010s, the mobile web has come a long way. A majority of searches and browsing sessions now take place on mobile devices, and businesses by and large understand the importance of being mobile-responsive, if not ‘mobile-first’. This takes care of one of the major sources of friction that surrounded QR codes a decade ago, which was that they frequently led to slow-loading, poorly-optimised landing pages.

Scanning technology has also become faster and more accurate over the years, and crucially, the majority of Android and iOS mobile devices now have QR code scanners built into their camera app, eliminating the need to download a separate scanning app – also a major source of friction in the past.

Finally, the 2020s have ushered in the so-called ‘killer app’ for QR codes: a cast-iron use case, something to transforms QR codes from a ‘nice to have’ into an essential part of our lives. In China, the ‘killer app’ for QR codes was their ability to link the online and offline worlds in a mobile-dominated society, and specifically to enable functionality like app downloads and payment on a platform (WeChat) that was already omnipresent.

For the west, where mobile dominance has been slower to arrive and there is no WeChat equivalent to throw its weight behind QR codes, the ‘killer app’ has taken much longer to present itself. But facilitating a digital, contactless society in the coronavirus era might just be the overarching use case that leads people to rediscover all the other useful things that QR codes can do.

There are still drawbacks to using QR codes, of course, such as the need to be conversant with the associated technology, which may be a sticking point for some consumers; the need for a stable connection to the internet (though again, this has become much easier to achieve over the past 10 years); and the potential for security flaws to be introduced without anyone realising (e.g. if a malicious code were printed over a genuine one).

However, no piece of technology or way of doing things will ever be completely perfect. But QR codes have the potential to be a useful and versatile tool in brands’ and businesses’ arsenals if they can overcome the hurdles posed by their gimmicky reputation and past failings – and so far, the outlook is increasingly positive.