Why is this interesting? The Return of the QR Code Edition

On technology, marketing, and pragmatism

Colin here. Rarely in the annals of marketing has there been a tactic as belittled as the QR code. When they were first used, it was seen as a way to bridge offline and online—see a cool movie poster, click the QR code to see the trailer. Trouble was, no one really ever did it. The “open rates,” or the percentage of people who took the action, were abysmal. 

One of the most notable attempts at the time, the unfortunately named Stickybits, allowed brands to put custom QR codes on their products, and users could scan them for rewards. All good in theory, but the idea was a bit too early for its time and the company ended up making one of the oddest pivots in history, becoming the social DJing game/experience, Turntable.fm

In 2017, Wired wrote about why the codes didn’t work

...QR codes seemed like a window to the future. Just point your camera, scan the code, and instantly check into your favorite place on Foursquare. At least, that was the idea. More often it went like this: Point your camera, remember your phone's camera doesn't do QR scanning on its own, download another app, open that app, point the camera, scan the code, and end up on some corporate website that's not even optimized for your phone. Few people ever scanned a code; fewer did twice.”

The user experience was terrible and adoption followed suit. Of course this didn’t stop marketers from selling their clients on using them instead of simpler alternatives like a website or Google keywords. Once again, the priority was on what’s hot, not what works.

Why is this interesting? 

Despite a decade of razzing, QR codes are having the last laugh. In COVID-times, these geometric marks seem like a necessary link to the world. I was having a socially-distanced, alfresco meal at Sunday in Brooklyn a few weeks back and the entire experience was reliant on QR codes. Click the code to pull up the menu, order in the Toast app, and pay. Your food was brought out fifteen minutes later, while many of the middle steps we normally know as restaurant dining were eliminated. While I’m normally all for “high-touch” service, we clearly need tools to fit the times. And it’s not just restaurants, most hotels have done away with any and all paper, opting for QR codes to pull up information like the room service menu. 

But why, after all this time, are we using them so seamlessly? The obvious answer is iOS 11. With that 2017 release, Apple made it so the Camera app can automatically recognize the codes and direct you to the appropriate website. What was once a multi-app ordeal is now as easy as opening up your Camera from your lock screen. But beyond the giant technical reason, I can’t help but feel like the other piece of the puzzle is that these codes have lost any delusions of grandeur. They are no longer there to unlock an exclusive piece of content or deep experience, but rather to offer a quick and easy portal to a web page or PDF that has information you actually want. Like most modern problems, it wasn’t just the tech that needed solving, but also our misplaced aspirations for what it could be. (CJN)

Startup of the Day:

Friend of WITI Joe Cohen is building an interesting business called Universe. It is a company that allows anyone to design a web page on their phone, with no code. People use it to start storefronts to begin selling merch, or to finally get their side hustle off the ground. 

Plus, you can handle the merchandise, manage inventory, shipping, and operations on the back end. It is as if Squarespace and Shopify had a zen child. I think this business is incredibly interesting as it will hopefully be a great platform for people, particularly Gen Z, to get their side businesses up and running quickly without having to open a laptop. They are currently backed by Google Ventures and I will be excited to hear where it goes. (CJN)

Quick Links: 

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

PS - Noah here. Variance, my new company, is just getting going with our Alpha. If you work in sales, services, marketing, or engineering and want to try out/give feedback on a tool to help your team work more effectively with their apps, please request an invite on the site. Thanks.

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