QR codes are seen everywhere. The use of these two-dimensional bar codes seems to have greatly increased since the beginning of the pandemic, when strict health measures prohibited physical contact. For example, think of the codes printed on vaccination confirmations and those that allow you to view restaurant menus.

Recently, we started pondering about the importance of QR codes in our profession, given their apparent popularity and increasing use. Will this tool become even more popular, or instead, will it disappear in favour of more innovative, accessible and secure contactless technologies? Should the QR code figure prominently in our strategic counsel that aims to optimize communications operations?

In the field of public relations, most particularly, the changing needs of clients and of society, the innovations seen in product offerings and communications channels, as well as emerging trends, all encourage agencies such as Zone franche to stay on top of the industry’s best practices. The relentless speed at which new products or processes break into the market often challenges our usual ways of working.

What is a QR code?

Most of us don’t know that the acronym “QR” in “QR code” refers to “quick response”. Its invention dates back to 1994 and is attributed to an engineer working at Denso Wave, an automotive component manufacturer partly owned by Toyota. At the time, the company was looking for a way to track parts within the automaker’s plants as efficiently as possible. The QR code was a very effective technological breakthrough.

What is the QR code used for?

Over the years, and in particular since the technology was made public in 1999, the QR code has become more and more democratized. The growing popularity of the QR code also coincides with the advent of high-speed internet and the unprecedented enthusiasm of consumers for cell phones since the late 2000s. It should be noted that in 2020, according to Statistics Canada, 84.4% of Canadians owned a smartphone. In most cases there is no need to download an application on your mobile, which makes it easier than ever to scan a QR code to access a website, view multimedia content and even make payments. QR codes create a bridge between the physical world and the Internet. They allow quick access to information found on the web or within an application that is specific to the place where you are.

The QR code can now be found just about everywhere: on packaging, in cultural venues such as museums, on business cards, e-tickets, tombstones, Formula 1 cars… and even as a tattoo. According to a report written by BlueBite, a 94% growth in QR code interactions was apparently observed from 2018 to 2020. In the first 18 months following the start of the pandemic, QR code downloads reportedly increased by 750% according to Bitly. The advantages of the QR code are undeniable, especially when compared to the one-dimensional bar code that can barely contain a dozen characters: QR codes can contain a large amount of data, they are easily customizable, using them is easy and inexpensive, and it is even possible to collect statistics on the frequency, location, date and time of their scanning.

The QR code is more popular than ever in the media

Pushing our research a little further, we wanted to examine how the usage of the term “QR Code” evolved in the Canadian media. A first mention is noted in a 2005 article highlighting the progress made in the development of new cameras that make scanning QR codes easier.

Media coverage of the QR code remained fairly low until the late 2000s. In 2010, the QR code made headlines and was the focus of an article reporting on the problems surrounding the attempted use of the technology by the organizers of the South By Southwest (SXSW) festival held in Texas. The QR code, printed on festival-goers’ badges, was initially intended to help them share their contact details. However, people struggled to understand how to use it, thereby demonstrating that the QR code was still a little-known technology. The festival has nicely recovered since. A few months ago, we learned that a huge QR code made up of hundreds of drones, and serving as an advertisement for the new Halo series, lit up the Austin sky as part of the festival.

In 2011, we start noticing the democratization of the QR code with the first articles published in Quebec media. Due to the pandemic, the number of articles mentioning QR codes increased significantly starting in 2020 (reaching 1,000 articles per month), with an all-time high in August 2021 of 6,000 articles. Since then, the QR code’s media visibility seems to be waning, as communities end confinement rules and the technology becomes more widely known and understood.

A public relations potential?

In the strategic communications, public relations and marketing fields, there is a constant need for innovation and originality in order to implement campaigns that stand out from the crowd. To meet customer needs, maximize the reach of publications, enrich value-added content and engage the target audience, we must use all the tools and resources at our disposal. Therefore, should the QR code become a necessary part of our arsenal?

The question is relevant. Marketing and communications specialists are leveraging the QR code to provide easy access to websites and news, promote social media accounts, offer rebate coupons, make calls to action and offer value-added content. Of course, the use of the QR code is not a panacea, a miraculous tool that will meet all needs. As with any product or communication channel, one must adjust the plan according to strategies, target audiences, objectives and desired results.

However, contactless technologies are bound to evolve. We already know that researchers and companies want to take gesture recognition, Near-Field Communication (NFC) and biometric technologies, among others, even further. Recent breakthroughs in augmented reality, digital identity and the metaverse, in particular, may very well change the landscape of our profession and allow for enriched virtual interactions between companies, organizations, institutions, service providers and their audiences.