QR codes were once written off by marketers as little more than a curiosity: an unreliable tech that promised much but failed to deliver the intended customer experience. But in 2021, QR codes find themselves in the midst of a major resurgence as a marketing tool. In this case study, we speak to MDL Marinas Group marketer Tim Mayer, to learn how his brand captured 900 customer emails last year through a campaign with QR codes at its core.
Quick Response (QR) codes are an information storage technology. They hold data in a format that can be read by compatible devices, such as smartphone cameras used with a QR scanner app.
QR codes were invented in 1994, by Masahiro Hara and his team of engineers at Denso Wave, a subsidiary of Toyota. The company was seeking a higher-storage alternative to existing barcode technology, to help with warehousing applications. As Hara puts it, “In the 1990s, due to a shift from mass manufacturing of one type of product to more flexible production, more detailed production control was required at manufacturing sites, and in association with this, developing a barcode that had increased capacity was required.”
Unlike the barcodes used with consumer goods since the 1970s, QR codes are two-dimensional. Where a barcode uses shaded bars and blank space one-dimensionally to represent an alphanumeric code, QR codes translate information into a grid of tiny squares, arranged both vertically and horizontally. This enables the capacity to store up to 3Kb of data in a standard-format QR code.
Since the dawn of digital, marketers have struggled with a particular challenge in the multichannel customer journey: how do you get someone who has engaged with print marketing to go away and visit a website or another digital platform?
The unwieldy solution many marketers have settled for has been to spell out a brand’s web address on print marketing materials such as posters and magazine ads. This approach is clearly flawed. It asks too much of the lead, who cannot realistically be expected to memorise the URL or note it down, then load up their web browser and type it into the address bar, character-by-character. At best, the lead will remember the brand name and Google it at the next opportunity – but even in these cases, the lead could end up reaching a different landing page to the one the marketer intended for them to visit.
QR codes emerged as a potentially superior alternative to typed URLs on physical-world marketing communications around 2010. The square codes were easy to incorporate into creative, and they helped marketers to capture leads’ interest by the simple virtue of their novelty. Best of all, QR codes expedited the multichannel customer journey, by enabling leads to jump straight from a print platform to a digital destination, via their smartphone camera.
Or that was the theory, at least. In practice, QR codes didn’t work a lot of the time. Customers had to download special apps in order to scan them, and in many cases their smartphone camera would prove barely capable, or totally incapable, of reading the codes.
These limitations explain why many marketers believed QR codes were a thing of the past. But as Wired writer David Pierce wrote in 2017, in his must-read article, The Curious Comeback of the Dreaded QR Code:
“[…] QR codes, it turns out, were just ahead of their time. They required a world where everyone always had their phone, where all phones had great cameras, and where that camera was capable of doing more than just opening websites. Over the last few years, both the underlying technology and the way people use it have caught up to QR codes. Before long, scanning codes will feel as natural as thumbing your fingerprint to unlock your phone.”
Most of today’s smartphone cameras fulfil two key criteria which enable QR codes to support the intended user experience: their camera hardware is high-spec enough to read the codes, and their software is equipped to interpret the codes without the need for a secondary app.
Aided by improvements to smartphones, tablets and other smart tech, QR codes are coming back in a big way. By 2020, the codes were becoming popular as both a marketing tool, and as a general information transfer tool, for example, as a substitute for printed appliance instruction manuals.
Worldwide Google Trends data from 2004-2020 (shown above) illustrates the QR code’s journey, as measured by public interest: obscurity in the noughties; prominence in the early 2010s; tapering interest till 2016; then a steady climb to an all-time high in 2020.
MDL Marinas Group runs 19 marinas in the UK, from Torquay to Windsor. The company has been striving to increase engagement with its digital platforms – a challenging goal, given that MDL Marinas’ customers have tended to consume traditional, not digital, media.
“It’s fair to say the marina business is quite traditional from a marketing perspective, with a focus on print publications, brochures and direct communications,” says Tim Mayer, Sales and Marketing Director at MDL Marinas.
2020 saw MDL Marinas developing and rolling out a number of new products, as well as making changes to existing ones. The company needed a way to ensure its demographic of boaters could access information on its updated offering. According to Mayer, finding out about the resurgence of QR codes via The Digital Marketing podcast turned out to be the key.
In a spring 2020 episode of the Digital Marketing Podcast, we highlighted some of the innovative ways marketers are now using QR codes in their campaigns.
Tim Mayer at MDL Marinas was listening, and he soon began implementing QR codes across a variety of marketing communications. These included printed notices about an award scheme, which were sent to existing customers; posters placed around the company’s marinas, which linked visitors through to Tripadvisor; and a benefits card linking to special offers for berth-holders. Copies of creative from the three campaigns are shown above, below and further-below respectively.
“At the start of a new season, all our berth-holders receive a welcome pack, which gives them their contract information, details of what we’ve got coming up, and so on,” says Mayer.
“Within these packs, we’ve started including a QR code that gives members access to a benefits area, where they can find things like discounts on boat listings and brokerage.
“Our new season started on 1 April 2020, in the middle of lockdown. As restrictions started to lift, we gained 900 registrations to the new system, via the QR codes in our welcome packs.”
According to Mayer, planning around a customer base that consumes content through traditional methods has always been a key consideration for MDL Marinas in the development of digital or mixed-digital-and-traditional products.
“Implementing QR codes has been an excellent bridge, which has allowed us to farm the data we need and transfer information to customers incredibly easily,” he says.
Unsuitable smartphones were one cause of QR codes’ sub-par performance in the 2010s; but another key reason was that best practices on how to incorporate the codes into creative were not yet well established or widely followed. In many cases, QR codes were not given enough prominence, and some were simply too small to scan.
MDL Marinas has made no such errors with its recent implementation of QR codes.
“When you see some of the marketing that goes out with QR codes, the codes tend to be hidden in the design,” says Mayer.
“We’ve tried to make them front and centre. The layouts may not look as pretty as they could do, but response rates have been 20-30% better with this approach.”
An under-rated characteristic of QR codes is their capability to attract engagement by appealing to people’s sense of curiosity. Users don’t know exactly where the codes will lead, so they scan them to find out. MDL Marinas played to this strength by providing a limited level of detail with its QR codes.
“It’s all about building up intrigue through the artwork, and making sure the customer journey is easy from then on,” says Mayer.
“The artwork intentionally does not give away everything about the linked content, and everything in the design points towards getting the reader to scan the code.
“There’s an eye-catching heading and clear instructions, but you’re really only getting the intro to the content,” he says.
The renewed promise of QR codes has come as a revelation to many marketers – Mayer included.
“If I go back to early last year, I thought QR codes had been and gone, but the reality has changed now that smartphone cameras can read them,” he says.
“A few years back you needed a separate app for scanning QR codes, so people didn’t tend to do it. Now that the technology has caught up, QR codes are an underutilised medium for pulling people in. They’re very easy for customers to use, so long as the artwork explains very simply what they need to do.”
For MDL Marinas, one of the biggest surprises with QR codes has been the fact that uptake has been at a fairly consistent level across all the demographic segments of the company’s audience.
“We have not seen any direct correlation with gender or age, and there is a fairly even spread across our demographics,” says Mayer.
“Most of my customers are over 55, and the next-most-represented age group is 35-55. There’s something like a 70/30 split between those groups.
“It seems that everyone, as long as they have a phone, is happy to scan and access the QR codes.”
MDL Marinas’ use of QR codes has been an unqualified success. In addition to the 900 email addresses captured through members’ welcome packs, the following statistics stand out:
Thanks to Tim Mayer at MDL Marinas Group for sharing his intriguing story of QR code-driven success.
QR codes have been “the next big thing” before, and it’s sensible to approach the technology’s resurgence with some skepticism.
With that said, all the evidence seems to suggest that this time around, it’s going to be a different story. From the marketing success of MDL Marinas, to the widespread use of QR codes on train and bus tickets throughout the UK, this once-spurned technology finally seems to be taking its place as one of the basic levers of information transfer, in marketing and beyond.
If your marketing flows across traditional and digital media, we would urge you to start experimenting with QR codes. Wherever the customer journey requires a transition to digital, these clever two-dimensional cousins of the barcode can help.
For lots more insight on QR codes, listen to our free podcast episode: QR Code Marketing in 2020.