Are QR codes dead?
  image courtesy of

QR code news during 2013

First I want to examine what there is out there about QR codes. In January this year talked about the use of QR codes in the US and Western Europe. Then in April Aaron Strout at talked about the demise of them before revising his argument in November to say that QR codes are not as dead we think. Or as dead as he thinks anyway.

Unfortunately the article only looked at studies done in Western countries. As yet I can’t find any English language studies that have looked at China and if anyone has any information related to this I’d love to see it. According to Chinese sources the QR code market is developing rapidly in China. Every month over 160 million consumers scan a QR code.

On 25 November announced that it was going to launch a new QR code service. Every goods page will now have its own exclusive code. Users can scan the code to buy the product and then carry on browsing the page and check out at the end.

Some forecasts suggest that by 2015 the QR code market in China could be worth 100 billion RMB ($16.4 billion) and that more than 10,000 companies will enter into the QR code market. Below I’m going to give my views on QR codes in China using various statistics and anecdotal evidence that I have collected recently.
Quick Response codes in China

QR codes are a way to store information that can be picked up by a reader very quickly. As with lots of these types of technologies its use has expanded from what was originally conceived.

I had never heard of them before I moved to China in 2011, but when I started using the Chinese social media mobile app WeChat from Tencent I discovered that people used them to exchange personal details from phone to phone using the scanner that was built into the app. Rather than telling someone your number you scan their QR code and your WeChat accounts are connected. No confusion or giving or receiving an incorrect number.

The image below shows what are the most popular apps in China. WeChat is very popular and therefore most people are familiar with the technology.

Top smartphone app in China
image courtesy of

For this reason QR codes can be seen everywhere in China. To see how ubiquitous they are I did an experiment. On my way to work one morning I decided to take a picture of every code I saw. As it turns out they are everywhere in Nanjing. The image below is a montage of just four I saw on my journey from the metro station to my office.

various QR codes in Nanjing

From top right in a clockwise direction I saw: a billboard size ad on the wall of the metro station as I got off the train; an advert on a poster on the door of a bookshop; a small billboard ad for a jobs website on the exit of an underpass and a magazine advert in the lobby my office building.

I’m not able to add all the pictures I took to this blog post as there’s simply not enough space, but other examples included codes on a marketing stand of an English school for Chinese kids, codes on examples of wedding photography marketing and lots more examples on posters for various products on the walls of the metro station.

What stood out in the metro station for me was the fact that the very prominent Mircosoft Surface adverts, Microsoft’s tablet version, did not have a QR code. One criticism of QR codes is that they take up valuable space and look cluttered. If you look at a Chinese website you might say it looks cluttered too. Understanding this cultural difference could help western marketers to think how better to integrate QR codes into their advertising.

What else are these codes used for in China? Well, just about everything. Talking to my Chinese colleagues about QR code use I was informed that they are used:

  • As complaint forms. For example if the bus or train you are travelling on is not up to your standards you can scan the code near the door and add the bus/train number with your comments. You can also praise a good driver too.
  • To find out more about TV shows. When a code pops up on TV you can scan it and it takes you to a website or you can view promotions.
  • If you are watching a music video on a streaming site and want more information about the band or extra videos.
  • To login into various websites from your phone.
  • As a way of verifying your identity before taking your exams at school!

As you can see from the infographic below all of the above uses are connected with the most popular smartphone activities in China.

Smartphone usage activities in China
image courtesy of

Which brings us to the most pertinent use from the perspective of a marketer: online shopping.
Online shopping in China

Recently I wrote about Chinese online shoppers and how they are becoming an important area for businesses to target. And with many of these cybershoppers moving to using their mobile device to make transactions it is no surprise that the giant Chinese firms Tencent and Alibaba have begun to take a very big interest in this area of e-commerce.

Through the WeChat app, which Tencent says 270 million people use every month, users can now take care of all their e-shopping needs. It’s possible to link your bankcard to your phone and then make quick online purchases by scanning a QR code. You can also track deliveries, review products and services, and tell your friends about it. By moving into e-shopping Tencent is stepping on undisputed industry leader Alibaba’s toes.

In turn Alibaba has launched it’s own mobile messaging apps, Laiwang and Weitao, to compete with WeChat. It already has Alipay, its own online payment service which has around 100 million registered users; think of a Chinese version of PayPal. Alibaba has turned its attention from shopping on standard computers to mobile devices and in the process started an online turf war in China.

Alibaba wants their mobile messaging apps to control 30 per cent of the messaging market. The apps Tmall and Taobao (which are also websites) were launched in 2009 and now have 320 million registers users. During the recent Singles Day sales on 11 November over 1 million vendors handled 10 per cent of their sales on these apps. During last year’s sales day 8 per cent of Alibaba’s transactions went through Alipay. This year the figure rose to 24 per cent. Who would bet against this going up again next year.
How QR codes can be used

Since I understood the significance of QR codes beyond using them to swap numbers with friends I have used them for all sorts of reasons. On my WeChat app I get updates from different accounts I have added to my subscriptions. The image below shows updates I get from a hotel restaurant about special offers (for when I really need a Western meal!) and also a quirky toilet themed café called More Than Toilet I stumbled across while in Shanghai.

Example of QR codes

I also get updates from various leisure activities I like to partake in in the evenings or weekend. The next image shows updates from a bar that does different themed nights during the week. This also sometimes includes special offers that only people with a subscription can get. The other one is for a nightclub that has regular foreign acts and also includes special offers such as guest list and reduced entry.

Example of QR codes

Some interesting ideas for how to use QR codes could be to have a code on your business card. One quick scan and you have all the details you need so that if you lose the card you don’t lose the contact. I see this a lot in China especially for bars and restaurants. Another idea would be to add a map and maybe even a copy of the menu when you scan the code. The technology is there it just needs some creativity to take it to the next level.
Do you use QR codes? How prevalent are they where you live? Can you think of any other uses for QR codes to help with marketing different businesses? I’d love to know what people think about this.

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