Use of QR Codes in Print HCP-Targeted Advertising

Subject: QR codes (quick response or read codes) were first released in the mid-1990’s as an alternative to a barcode, but have since become a trendy tool included in print ad campaigns. The widespread use of smartphones has increased the use of QR codes in multiple industries, simply because it allows people to quickly access web content, usually at no cost.

QR codes are an efficient way to extend the value of a print campaign. Print materials have limited space to communicate messaging or to allow for next steps from the viewer, but adding a QR code that links to digital content such as a video, app or coupon increases the value of the print medium and allows the user to connect and engage with the brand. It also opens up more opportunities for the marketer to measure engagement. It is important to note, however, that the content end users are driven to is customized for mobile devices. QR codes leading to standard desktop websites make for poor user experience.

Adoption and Use 

In April 2011 Microsoft Tag announced that the number of scans per month (within their platform) had doubled over the past quarter and the number of users per month had increased 2.5 times in that same timeframe. It was also noted that publishing continued to lead among top industries adopting QR codes.

 In a Q4 2010 study conducted by ScanLife, smartphone adoption and general awareness of 2D barcode technology proved significant growth. The study estimated that 30-40% of all smartphone users had downloaded a QR code reader. On average, a unique user scanned 2-3 barcodes per month. Everyday products made up a large portion of scanning, with grocery products ahead of health and beauty products. Females represented 30% of unique users scanning, with the 25 – 34 and 35 – 44 age groups representing the largest unique users of scanning. Android was the leading operating system for scans, followed by iPhone.

 Industry Implications: 

With 81% of physicians owning a smartphone (Manhattan Research Taking the Pulse V11.0), there is great opportunity for the Pharma industry to leverage QR codes to increase cross-channel communication to HCPs. QR codes can provide access to MOA or KOL videos adjacent to a printed campaign message. They could also provide physicians with the option to request an in-office visit from a sales rep or educator. Aside from use in professional journals, QR codes can also be used at conventions on posters or even at product booths. 

For patients, they can provide access to coupons or extend the conversation through additional information related to the drug. Other opportunities could be to link the QR code to a mobile doctor discussion guide, which the patient could access through a print ad or wallboard in the waiting room prior to visiting with his or her physician. 

These are just a few examples of how QR codes can further extend engagement with a brand.


Although many people don’t know what a QR code is, physicians – especially the younger set – are more likely to be early tech adopters, and therefore we can assume more likely to recognize a QR code. Including a QR code in journal ads will raise interest from physicians who have mostly seen them in more consumer-focused ads. In initial CMI ByDoctor® OnDemand surveys, we have seen that more than 48% of physicians do recognize a QR code and feel familiar with them. And Manhattan Research’s Taking the Pulse V11.0 study says 45% of HCP’s scan QR codes. Based on the studies mentioned above, we expect that percentage to increase exponentially.

 QR codes are more than just a simple extension to a print campaign. They are digital tools that can be used to help reach marketing goals. We have seen Pharma dabble in its use, notably Novo Nordisk for their diabetes franchise. However, more widespread use that leads HCPs to valuable content has the potential to significantly increase HCP interaction with print advertising. Using QR response as an absolute measure of success for an offline channel is not advised.  Instead we recommend our clients supplement this action/engagement data with standard offline measures of message awareness.