QR codes may be struggling, but they’re nowhere near dead

Everyone seems to be writing lately about how QR codes have already seen their best days: IMedia claims this year will sound the death knell for QR codes in mobile, MarketingMag says they have flopped before they even began and the Atlantic calls them the roller-skating horses of advertising, a novelty placeholder until better mobile marketing tools come along. But I think 2012 could be the year QR codes finally live up to the hype — if marketers start using them correctly.

High hopes, disappointing results

I get the skepticism. We have been hearing for years that QR codes are the next big thing, the technology that will serve as a high-speed on-ramp to the mobile web. The reason, of course, is that scanning a code to receive content or to access a mobile website on a smartphone is supposedly easier than typing in a long URL on a handset. But as a recent study from Archrival revealed, QR codes are often misunderstood by users. The youth marketing agency polled college students and found that while 81 percent of respondents had a smartphone, only 21.5 percent were able to scan a QR code when asked. Most of those polled simply didn’t understand how QR codes work — 70 percent thought they could take a picture of the code rather than scanning it — which is primarily why three-quarters of them said they were unlikely to try to scan a code in the future.

A lack of consumer education isn’t the only problem, obviously. Marketers have consistently misused QR codes by placing them where they are almost impossible to read, such as on the back of city buses or billboards alongside highways. Other mistakes include placing them in areas with no connectivity, such as on subway platforms, in the pages of in-flight magazines or on TV commercials that don’t give users time to grab their phones and scan the image. And far too many campaigns like this one from Macy’s use QR codes to direct users to a PC-based website that is difficult or even impossible to use on a phone. That’s a shame, because smartphone users are low-hanging fruit for mobile marketers: The European Internet firm Go-Gulf.com recently released data indicating that people between the ages of 25 and 34 are more likely to own a smartphone (62 percent) than any other group, and 69 percent of all smartphone owners used downloaded applications in 2011. And 488 million smartphones were shipped worldwide last year, according to Canalys, demonstrating an annual growth of nearly 63 percent.

Still a powerful tool

So why am I still bullish on QR codes? Primarily because advertisers still see them as an affordable way to reach the young, affluent consumers who are most likely to own a smartphone. AT&T recently reported that 88 percent of respondents in a survey of 500 marketers at medium-sized to large U.S. businesses said they plan to increase their mobile marketing spend over the next year, with mobile apps and mobile bar codes being the top two priorities. That echoes recent data from the mobile marketing firm Nellymoser, which recently announced that use of its QR codes by magazines has increased 228 percent over the past 12 months.

Of course, simply pumping money into QR code campaigns isn’t enough. Advertisers must tell consumers exactly how to use their codes, and they should offer something of value like a discount offer or a piece of interesting content to reward users for interacting with them. They should make sure to place the codes where they can be easily scanned and used, such as on business cards, promotional posters and store windows. And they must execute campaigns flawlessly by automatically directing consumers to websites designed specifically for mobile use. Kellogg’s demonstrated that last year when it tried to stoke engagement with single men between the ages of 18 and 35 by placing QR codes and short codes on the back of Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes. The campaign concluded with 40,000 QR scans and only 6,000 texts, resulting in 38,000 videos played and 50,000 page views.

QR codes will increasingly see competition from competing technologies such as NFC and image recognition–based search. But mobile bar codes are being deployed now and can be used by consumers carrying just about any smartphone. That means they are still a good way to attract a solid demographic that grows bigger by the day — but only for advertisers who understand how to leverage them.

Question of the week

What are the keys to deploying a successful QR code campaign?
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  1. Derek Kerton Tuesday, March 6, 2012

    ^^^My beef is that, for most of the QR codes I’ve scanned, the nature of the resulting content is unknown to me upon the scan, and upon review has seldom turned out to be of much interest.^^^

    When the QR landing page offers little more value than the message of the poster of mag ad that you scanned it from, why bother?

    Secondly, would it be so hard to just type: bit.ly/34k2 or such?

    Thirdly, my phone has this thing on it, called “Google”. I can search using my voice, or with text. So I could execute a search on “Clairol Hair New Orleans deal” much faster than I could scan a QR code.

    QR codes are just the complicated cousin of the age-old “AOL keyword”. I can see how some QR campaigns could be created well, but for the most part, the research Colin discussed confirms my experience with QR.

    1. Thanks for the comments, Derek.

      I completely agree that the only way QR codes will really take off is if marketers make it worth consumers’ while to scan them. And that isn’t happening in any substantial way as far as I’ve seen.

      But I don’t entirely agree with your second point: No, it’s not that difficult to type a shortened URL into the browser, but I do think it’s more cumbersome than scanning a code. (Firing up the browser and typing in a couple of characters at a time for a seemingly random URL, etc.)

      And while you make a good point about search, I think QR codes are a good option for the kind of smaller, targeted campaigns that traditional search is ill-suited for — say, a promotional campaign for a mom-and-pop store or a lunch discount at the little restaurant around the corner.

      1. “No, it’s not that difficult to type a shortened URL into the browser, but I do think it’s more cumbersome than scanning a code.”

        Fair enough. But you need to add in the following to the process, and consider how the mass market views this:

        Step 1) be aware of QR codes, what they are, what they do
        Step 2) find, choose, download and install a QR scanner
        Step 3) remember to use it when you see a QR code

        These steps require education, and are not trivial to the mass market. Looking up a URL is a lesson they have already had.

  2. Great to hear from you, Dean — it’s been a while. Hope all is well, and thanks for the comments.

    I understand your point about doorknobs, but QR codes are more complicated and confusing for users. (As the Archrival study showed, many users think they should be photographed rather than scanned.) So I think instructions can be helpful if they’re presented with barcodes in an atmosphere where users have a chance to read and follow them. (When standing in line, for instance, or waiting for a bus.)

    And yeah, image recognition is promising but has a long way to go to become useful in any real sense.

  3. Image recognition will NOT work unless there is some indication that this “Image” has some additional contextual information available.

    QR codes and door knobs are very much alike. Ever seen instructions on a door knob?

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