When this issue of Esquire landed in my mailbox in 2009, it was weird enough and special enough that I stashed it with a stack of my favorite magazines.
The QR code that Robert Downey Jr. was drawing attention to was so foreign to most people’s experiences at that point that Esquire included a five-step set of instructions on how to bring it to life. The list started with “Make sure your computer is equipped with a working webcam.” (!!)
Fourteen years and one pandemic later, most of us have a love-hate relationship with QR codes.
While I generally loathe QR codes as much as I did back in 2009, QR code integration in print magazines has improved in the intervening years, and I’m genuinely excited about some of the ways I’ve seen them used recently.
Although I still see lots of alumni magazines using QR codes badly (no, I absolutely DO NOT want to scan your QR code to “learn more” about a story topic), there are also some really great models in the consumer magazine world that I’m excited to share.
You can learn what’s worked there and adapt for your own uses.
Plus, read all the way to the end to see the primary principle you should apply before using a QR code.
So when should you use a QR code? When you want to…
1. Give your reader answers
The Atlantic has started running a crossword puzzle on its inside back spread. (Spoiler: I’m terrible at them, as you can see, but I try!)
If you want to get hints or all of the answers, you don’t flip the magazine upside down or go to a different page: you can snap the QR code, and it’ll take you to the puzzle in an online format, where you can fill it in, get the right word for an individual clue, or see the full answer grid. (The page also has links to other stories.)
How could you use this idea? I can see it as an option for a quiz you might run in your pages, for example.
2. Make it easy to respond to a prompt
Real Simple runs an advice column every month. On the first page of the two-page spread, advice-seeking readers can use the QR code to link to an email address where they can share their own conundrum with the columnist.
I like this direct-to-email option! If you use prompts on your back page or in your class notes section, this may be a useful approach to try out.
3. Switch channels
I was absorbed by the review of Emma Cline’s The Guest in New York magazine earlier this summer. By the time I got to the end of the review, I was so intrigued that I immediately bought the book.
And when I saw that I could receive the publication’s four-part book club email series by scanning the QR code, I couldn’t sign up fast enough.
VERY SMART, New York magazine! I love the print magazine, but the email book club would have been impractical to add to the pages itself. It also worked better as a weekly email series, and it added another way for the brand to get in touch with me.
While this approach is a tricky needle to thread, I can absolutely see it working in other ways. For example, with the appropriate lead in, it might be a way to encourage readers to watch specific webinars or sign up for newsletters.
The larger idea is this: the most successful QR codes focus relentlessly on WHAT’S IN IT FOR THE READER. Not what’s in it for the publication or the larger brand.
Always, always, always keep your reader in mind.