One of the perks of working at Well Done Marketing is indulging our personal passions in the service of creating our ongoing content calendar. We’ve written about our favorite movies and our favorite months. We’ve plumbed the depths of Uncle Scrooge, Tom Petty, and text adventure games from the 1980s.

And then there is the more practical blog content made with the professional audience specifically in mind: “How Much Should You Spend on Marketing?” or “Up Your Healthcare Social Media Game”—that kind of thing. Because we also want to share our marketing savvy and know-how. Hence, QR codes.

QR codes? What even are those? Magic Eye puzzles for the not very easily daunted? Black and white chessboards disintegrating inside an M.C. Escher nightmare? How am I supposed to make this interesting?

As so often happens, this was the very point where I started to get interested.

QR Codes: A Quick Download

Developed in the Japanese auto industry as a faster, more information-rich alternative to the standard barcode, the QR code (short for quick response code) seemed like a natural solution when developers started thinking about ways to input long data strings—like URLs or account numbers—into smartphones. Let the camera do the work!

QR adoption started out pretty respectably (14 million scans in 2011, or around 6.2% of total mobile users). But users had to launch a third-party app just to read the codes, and other technologies, like near-field communication and geofencing, were more seamless.

And then there was the problem of deployment. As one marketer put it in this 2012 piece on QR’s swiftly waning appeal, “Very few people want to visit your corporate website to begin with.”

One QR user seemed to agree. “About 80% of the time, I’m disappointed I scanned it,” he said. “Mostly it’s just curiosity at this point. I’m not actually expecting anything useful.” These ads for the Gillette Fusion ProGlide Styler make a somewhat queasy case-in-point.

Basically, QR codes became a bit of a joke. Use dropped substantially by 2018, with only 9.76 million scans for the year. They’re up a bit more this year, but still haven’t attained the peak they hit almost a decade ago.

Not Quite Dead

Given their checkered past, why would you even consider putting QR codes in your marketing plan these days?

For one thing, our smartphone cameras are now equipped to easily read them. It took a while, but both Apple and Android have added the function to their native camera apps.

QRs also fit well into the contact-sensitive world of COVID-19. Some restaurants now offer codes that take you directly to their online offerings—so you can avoid touching a menu that may have been handled by other hands.

And precisely because they seem so 2010, QR codes already have a built-in retro vibe.

But how can we get people to actually start using them again, now that they can more easily do so? That’s an important question.

Surprise and Delight

One thing about QR codes just seems obvious. It’s a code. It doesn’t inherently tell you what it means or where it leads. And this is both a drawback—and a tremendous opportunity.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was The KnowHow Book of Spycraft—a slim but tremendously detailed picture book that explained all about the signs, signals, messages, and codes that spies used to accomplish their secret messages without detection. It launched the fortunes of Usborne Books and was even entered into evidence during the trial of Soviet spy Oleg Gordievsky—so richly suggestive were its depictions of spy techniques of the 1970s and 80s.

One particular spread shows the activities of a dozen or so trenchcoated spies in one small city park. The captions describe how each spy finds a secret message hidden somewhere innocuous: inside a newspaper, down a rabbit hole, beneath a hollow log, or under a dog’s collar.

This, I submit, is the world that most of us wish to associate with codes. We don’t want to scan a square to visit a website to search for a cheese spread recipe to use on our Blue Diamond Nut Thins. We want to find something unexpected. Something mysterious or strange or delightful.

If people cared enough to scan them—and if we weren’t worried about the security threat posed by opening one of questionable provenance—QR codes could make pretty good jumping-off points for cryptic marketing campaigns. They could take users directly to the digital point of provocation without giving away the game.

Those are two big ifs. But I think good design might go a long way toward addressing the first of them. Turns out, there’s tremendous flexibility in how QR codes can be designed—so there are good reasons to think outside the black and white.

As for the second issue, context matters. Unless you are a spy, you’d probably be wise not to scan the random code stuck to the trash bin at the park. But a cling applied neatly to one side of a bus shelter is probably a safer bet.

Touchless menus aside, QR codes may never link the print and digital worlds the way marketers dreamed they would. But they’re easy to generate and can do more than just send users to a website—contact info, SMS draft messages, calendar events, and map data are just a start.

What’s more, they have a built-in mystique that you shouldn’t ignore. Never give them up; that is, unless you suspect some kind of prank…