Why It’s Time for Your Nonprofit to Embrace QR Code Marketing

communication strategy events fundraising marketing resource tools Jul 21, 2022

The first time I saw a QR code, I remember being told that it was going to be the next big thing, a game changer in the world of marketing. 

QR codes were the latest innovation for engaging with people on-the-go, a way to connect more fully with the ever-growing number of people who were getting smartphones.

For a while, it seemed to take off. Companies from Taco Bell to Nissan to PayPal were embracing the scannable blocks. It seemed the hype was justified and we all tried to incorporate them into our marketing. 

And then - pffft. Almost as quickly as it arrived, the QR code was gone. 

Why? Mostly because smartphone technology - and marketers - hadn’t caught up to the potential of these two-dimensional barcodes. 

But since 2017, QR codes have made a huge comeback, and their fall and rise has implications for your nonprofit. Should your organization get into the QR code game for marketing? Absolutely. But first, it will help to understand what QR codes are, why they flopped the first time, and what’s changed in the past five years. 

So What Are QR Codes, Anyway?

The initials stand for Quick Response. These digital images are basically barcodes on steroids. Unlike what you scan in the grocery store - which only reads horizontally - the square boxes are two-dimensional, meaning they can be read horizontally and vertically. That means a lot more information can be included in the code.  While barcodes have about 25 characters max, a QR code can contain between 1500 and 2500 alphanumeric characters.

Once you scan the image, you're redirected to the information or website within the code. The biggest benefits include the fact that they are trackable and editable. 

The technology goes back to the late 20th Century. QR codes were invented in 1994 by Denso Wave, a Japanese automobile company based in Kariya city, which used it to track parts. Around 2000, they started to be used outside the automotive industry because of their fast readability and greater content storage capacity. 

But there was a problem. That era of smartphones didn’t have native QR code readers, meaning you had to download apps, which were often clunky, to scan them. 

And the content the codes linked weren’t that inspiring. Heck, it often wasn’t even responsive for mobile devices. So you would go to all the trouble of downloading an app and learning to use it and you’d be rewarded with a teeny-tiny webpage that you had to pinch and zoom to even see.

On top of that, most mobile phone plans charged for data, so every scan of a QR code was costing you money. It’s not surprising that QR codes didn’t gain traction.

2017, COVID-19 and the Rise of the QR Code

2017 was the year that changed everything. 

First off, smartphone service providers started offering cheap data plans. Then Apple rolled out its iOS update for smartphones which had a QR code reader built-in. Other smartphone manufacturer’s followed and soon most operating systems included a native QR reader. Even if they didn’t, the apps you might need to scan QR codes were far more intuitive and easier to use. 

While the rollout of smartphones with more functionality and QR code reading capability contributed to the rise of QR code technology, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated its use.

With governments restricting physical interactions, QR codes came in handy. Touch-free convenience became the order of the day and QR technology was used to provide digital menus in restaurants and special coupons in other retailers. 

How Nonprofits Can Use QR Codes for Marketing and Promotion

Nonprofits can use QR codes in a multitude of ways. The key is to use them in a way that enhances the user's experience with your organization. If most of the people who interact with your organization have smartphones (and that’s increasingly likely), you can use QR codes to set your nonprofit apart and reach audiences in new ways.

QR codes can be integrated into printed material, from posters to business cards. They can also be used at events as a paperless way to get people to sign up for email newsletters or volunteer or donate to your cause.

Let’s face it - more and more of your supporters are living their lives on their phones. And QR codes enable them to not have to type in a URL code or do a Google search to find you. 

Once you scan a QR code, your smartphone encodes the information in it. It uses the encoded information to automatically trigger a variety of actions, such as:

  • View a website or landing page
  • Send an email or text
  • View a video 
  • Dial a phone number
  • View a social media page
  • Download contact details
  • View a special offer or message
  • View a Google map location

Examples of how you can use QR code marketing for your nonprofit organization:

Fundraising - direct people to a landing page that provides inspirational information and details about a fundraising campaign they can be a part of. 

Donation pages - send people directly to your organization's donation page for quick and easy access. 

Events and Programs - share event details, or program calendars that people can easily access.   

Surveys - gather post-event information, donor insights, and program feedback with quick links to a survey.  

Business Cards - Link to a vcard that adds your contact information to people's phone contacts. 

Galas - link to event registration, RSVP or check-in pages. 

The potential uses for nonprofits to use QR codes are practically endless. Any digital site, social media channel, or online video can be linked to from a QR code.  

But wait…there’s more

Here’s some of the other benefits of QR codes:

  • Cost-effective: Free to small monthly fees as low as $5 a month depending on how you want to use the code and what kind of data you would like to gather. 
  • Convenient: Quick scans from smartphone cameras automatically direct to digital sites.  
  • Eco-friendly: They minimize or eliminate the use of printed material.
  • Measurable: The actions triggered by the QR code can be analyzed to develop or tweak marketing campaigns.


Best Practices for Your QR Code Campaigns

Display Your QR Codes in a Convenient Space

Display QR codes where it’s easy and convenient for people to scan them. For example, billboards and TV commercials are not user-friendly places to display QR codes. It’s not safe for people to pull out their smartphones while driving to scan a code. Likewise, a 30-second commercial on TV is not enough time to allow a customer to scan a code.

The best places for QR codes include:

  • Print media (postcards, rack cards, flyers, magazines and newspapers)
  • Transportation signage (trains, airplanes, buses)
  • An indoor setting with a WiFi connection

Optimize the QR Code’s Destination Page for Mobile

Potential users will use their mobile devices to scan QR codes. So ensure your destination page is optimized for mobile to give them the best viewing experience from a phone. 

Place a Call to Action Beside Your QR Codes

A call to action tells people what to do when they see your QR code. It also tells them what they’ll get after scanning the code. Make it clear so it’s worth scanning and not dismissed as just another QR code since they are now pretty commonplace. 

As with all your marketing plans for your nonprofit, you need to take some time to strategize about how you are going to use QR codes - and what the audiences you want to connect with will get out of the experience. So before diving in, ask yourself some questions: 

  • What’s the objective of your QR code marketing?
  • Who is your target audience?
  • What should the call to action be?
  • Where will the QR code take the user?
  • What are the metrics for measuring QR code success?

Since those first days of wondering just what those black squares were, I’ve become a QR code believer. 

Using these little black and white boxes can help your nonprofit expand its audience. It can also help you increase engagement with those who need or support your mission, including clients, donors, advocates and volunteers. They are the latest way of meeting people where they are - on their phones, looking for convenient ways to connect with the world - and that’s the soul of good nonprofit marketing.