QR Codes: Are They Here to Stay?

Several years ago we discussed the benefits of SMS and how a short code could go anywhere -- on any product or advertisement to make that object or ad "actionable" and to capture consumer response.

Now the same discussion and opportunity surrounds QR codes, although they won't work on any phone. There are also some challenges with their use even on smartphones: often there's a of installed software of they fail to resolve and deliver the intended data.

Despite these obstacles, QR codes can be extremely effective in extending the value and reach of outdoor, TV and print ads. They offer ways to capture leads, generate sales and provide product information to buyers and prospects "on the spot." They connect the digital and real worlds in a very efficient and immediate way.

A recent IPG Emerging Media lab study with CBS Interactive found that smartphone use at the point of sale was more about validating intent to purchase and gaining confidence than it was finding a cheaper source for the product. In other words, more information helps consumers feel more confident about buying the desired item. QR codes can be instrumental in delivering valuable information to consumers to help them make buying decisions "in the moment."

An article yesterday in the WSJ about QR codes offers several anecdotal use cases and arguments for their efficacy:

About eight months ago, the three-store chain started putting these "quick response" codes in its train ads. When customers scan the little squares with their smartphone cameras, a coffee menu pops up on their screens. Then they can order a cup of coffee on the train—and have it waiting when they arrive at one of Ethical Bean's shops.

Business has doubled since then, says Chief Executive Lloyd Bernhardt. "We catch people who are on the go and don't have a lot of time," he says.

There are lots of case studies like this, showing that QR codes can be used very effectively. The interesting question is: when NFC takes hold what will happen to QR codes? Or perhaps: how long will it take for NFC to gain mainstream adoption?

Android is rapidly on its way to becoming the top smarpthone OS. Android OS Gingerbread already has NFC support and, as a result, Google dropped use of QR codes for its Places promotional tools. Every Google OS update henceforth will support NFC. As Android grows so will the installed base of NFC-enabled smartphones. 

The next iPhone is now rumored to not have NFC support. Beyond this there are also costs and new infrastructure requirements associated with NFC. But there is a lot of momentum behind it, most notably because of increasing interest and activity around mobile payments. 

Realistically we're probably about three to five years away from meaningful NFC adoption in the US and Europe. During that window QR codes will have an opportunity to establish themselves in mainstream use. If they can QR codes may survive the adoption of NFC.