What Is a QR Code? (+How You Can Use QR Codes in 2019)

Lauren Fram
Lauren Fram  |  December 11, 2018

QR codes have become a part of our culture, but the odds that you’ve used them are relatively slim. 

You probably see them nearly everywhere, but have you ever really paid attention?

Here’s one for reference.

qr-code-example

That, my friends, is a QR code.

Practically, QR codes are a means for marketers to bridge the gap between the physical and the digital worlds.

While this scanning software works much the same as barcode software, QR codes are designed to hold much more data. Barcodes translate into a set of letters, numbers and symbols, but a QR code can hold up to 406 bytes of data. That’s not much, but it’s enough to open a website or video on your phone.

TIP: Looking to generate machine-readable code the traditional, barcode way?

See the Easiest-to-Use Barcode Software →

For the retail and restaurant industries, a QR code is an easy tool to link directly to online ordering pages or social media profiles. In Asia, the Chinese social media app Weibo is widely used to make in-person purchases by scanning QR codes. User profiles are connected to a digital wallet. Scanning the code of their meal automatically deducts the price from their account. The West is not quite on board yet, mostly because many people aren’t comfortable with connecting their bank account to their social media.

Amazon, however, is trying to change that.

From making one-touch purchasing easy in the Amazon app to the cashierless Amazon Go stores that require a phone and a scanned QR code to even enter, businesses are starting to move toward leveraging mobile technology to make purchasing quick and easy on the go.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the basics.


What is a QR code?

A QR code is a means to store a small amount of data that can be accessed by scanning an image. QR codes carry an instruction, such as opening a website, or data, such as credit card or contact information.

Originally invented by a Japanese manufacturer to aid in inventory control, QR codes are now widely used in the SMS marketing industry. Many social media sites are using technology similar to QR codes to find and follow user accounts.

Instagram’s new nametag feature and the Snapchat for business feature Snapcodes are two QR code examples in 2019 that make it easy to scan an app-specific code and follow the connected account.


How do you scan a QR code?

These days, all you need is a smartphone with a camera app. Most camera applications for phones manufactured within the past few years will include a QR scanner. All you need to do is open your camera and point it at the QR code.

how-to-scan-qr-code

As you can see above, my phone camera (Moto Z Force running Android v8.0.0) recognizes that this QR code directs to a website. It gives me the option to either open the website directly or copy the URL to my clipboard. iPhone cameras can do something similar. If your phone camera can’t directly scan QR codes, there are many QR scanner apps available. It’s an extra step, but works exactly the same way.


How do you create a QR code?

Creating a QR code can be just as easy as scanning one. There are many free websites that help you do this. These sites allow you to choose what kind of QR code to make (i.e., what information or action you want to embed) and generate a code that you can customize and embed.

how-to-make-a-qr-code

For instance, I created this custom G2 Crowd QR code using QRCode Monkey and it only took a few minutes to customize the colors and shapes and add our logo. Some QR generators with subscription models let you customize even more.


What types of QR codes can be made?

Directing a user to a website is only the most basic option for a QR code. Other options include:

  • Contact information: A scanned QR code functions like a virtual business card, including your name, phone number, email, address and company details. These are automatically stored in a phone’s contacts when scanned.

  • SMS: Scanning creates a text message with a predetermined recipient. All the scanner needs to do is hit send.

  • Email: Scanning stores an email complete with message, subject line and recipient. All the user needs to do is hit send.

  • Phone call: Scanning automatically loads or starts a phone call to an embedded number.

  • Text: Scanning reveals a small amount of text stored in the QR code.

  • Location coordinates: Scanning sends location coordinates to a geolocation app.

  • Calendar event: Scanning automatically adds an event to the scanner’s calendar with a reminder.

  • Wi-Fi network: Scanning stores Wi-Fi network credentials for automatic network connection and authentication.

  • Social media profile: Scanning follows a specific profile (on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) using the scanner’s personal profile.

  • App store: Scanning links directly to a page on an app store, making it easy to download.

  • Dynamic QR codes: These codes are generated once, but the data stored on them can be edited. They include embedded analytics and password protection so creators can see how often they are scanned. They can even add basic logic such as device-based redirection. For instance, they can detect what device (Android vs. iPhone) is being used and redirect to the appropriate app store (Google Play vs. Apple App Store) or music library (Spotify vs. iTunes).


Why use QR codes?

Given the many different uses for QR codes, they are well suited for integration within a marketing strategy. QR codes make it easy for potential customers to engage with your brand immediately after seeing a physical advertisement. Rather than hope they remember to check out that deal or website later, customers can scan the QR code and access it right then.

While this particular example was the initial hope for this technology, the reality is a bit different. People do not scan QR codes as often as businesses might hope. However, integrating exclusive or engaging content makes customers more likely to use them. In this age of social media, QR codes that connect directly to your social media profiles makes it easy for customers to engage with your brand, especially if there’s the promise of exclusive deals or information.

Ultimately, you need to know what drives and motivates your customers and create QR codes that will streamline the paths that they are already using. If your business primarily makes appointments via text, customers might like a code that creates a text inquiring about appointment availability. If you’re an independent contractor, a QR code containing your contact information makes it easy to share that information on the go.


Popular QR code examples

Snapcodes

Snapchat created the Snapcodes to make it easy for users to follow each other, and, at the height of Snapchat’s popularity, millions of Snapcodes were being scanned each week. Brands could print their Snapcodes on posters and other promotional material in order to boost engagement as a form of guerrilla marketing.

Related content: What is Guerrilla Marketing? →

Starbucks App

As of mid-2017, nearly a third of all in-store payments are made via the Starbucks app using QR codes. Starbucks is one of the few companies to successfully integrate mobile payments and digital wallet payments into their business model.

WeChat

China’s most popular social media app successfully uses QR codes in nearly every way you can imagine. From payments to marketing to sharing friend groups or profiles, WeChat has made the QR code nearly ubiquitous in China.


What is the future of QR codes?

While Amazon is beginning to use QR codes to their advantage with Amazon Go stores, there are predictions that Apple and Apple Wallet will begin using QR codes to make mobile purchasing easy in lieu of other payment gateway platforms.

Vendors may soon be able to generate a QR code for a specific purchase with item and price data that can then be scanned by the customer to automatically deduct funds from their digital wallet. This may prove more secure than a store having a single QR code for all mobile purchases.

QR codes may also become a staple of mobile ticketing for events and transportation. Rather than worry about losing a transit card or purchasing a new transit card when visiting a new city you’ll probably never use again, QR codes could replace metro cards. You could download a transit app, load some funds, and receive a personal QR code to scan as a fare. Similarly, perhaps you could download a concert app, scan your personal QR code at a venue to pay for entry, and see all the concerts you want without buying tickets in advance.

Obviously, the widespread use of QR codes requires some logistical kinks to be worked out in advance, but the possibilities are almost endless. All anyone needs to get started is a way to generate codes, display codes, and scan codes. After that, the only limitation is your imagination (and the data limit the codes can hold).

QR codes are widespread, easy to create and use. There’s every reason to use them to bolster your mobile marketing efforts and ramp up your customer engagement. 

To read more about mobile payment options, check out our 2019 restaurant trends.

Lauren Fram
Author

Lauren Fram

Lauren is a market research analyst focusing on the e-commerce and retail industries. Since joining G2 in July 2017, she has focused her energy on consumer-driven spaces after spending time in the vertical, design, and CAD software spheres. Lauren's writing and research has been cited in publications such as Forbes, Eater, and Nasdaq.com, among others. She enjoys building and sharing her knowledge. Her coverage areas include: retail technology, e-commerce, and restaurant technology.