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Five reasons why QR codes are — mostly — a crock

Dear everyone. Please stop using QR codes. Stop putting them on your billboards. Your posters. Your magazines. Your flyers. Your websites. Just stop. Until you sit down and think about it a lot more carefully. Thank you.

It’s a funny thing when people get hold of a new technology. As people prone to hyperbole, we start shouting from the rooftops how this new thing is going to “revolutionise” (our favourite word) the way people communicate. With QR codes, we’re nattering on about how “virtual and real world communications have finally merged” and how we can now offer “a seamless consumer experience across marketing channels” (yes, these are actually sentences that I’ve heard said about QR codes).

But QR codes are not the Next Big Thing (at least, not yet), and here’s why.

Reason 1: No one knows what they are
Clay Shirky said it best: “Communication tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring”. The point is, except in very special circumstances, we should not be teaching users how to use a piece of technology, they should be communicating with users in a way that those users are already comfortable with.

In a recent survey conducted in San Francisco, one of the most tech-savvy cities in the world, people were shown a QR code and asked to identify what it was. Only 11% were able to answer correctly, with a further 29% knowing it was “some barcode thingy”. The remaining 60% guessed it was one of those pictures you see in 3D when you squint your eyes, an aerial map of the city, a letter in Korean or something else.

Even worse, when he further interrogated that 11% who did know what it was, he found only 35% knew they read it using their phone and only 45% of them could successfully do it. And this was in San Francisco. Only 6.2% of all Americans have ever used one. In markets like South Africa which are far further behind on the technology adoption scale, it’s almost certain this proportion is even smaller.

Reason 2: There’s no incentive to use them
Marketing material is very seldom valuable to a consumer in itself (unless you are a brand like Nike). Generally, the only major use of QR codes we’re seeing is to drive consumers off a piece of advertising to a website. It’s seldom that a consumer gets value out of this experience.

If they’re interested enough to go to your website, drive them there by all means; but why not do this through a short URL, which is a piece of technology people already know how to use?

There are ways to make the QR code experience worth a consumer’s while (link to exclusive content or deals, or give fascinating context-specific information, or make a process quicker for them like finding an app on the Android app store), but we’re just not seeing enough use of these tactics yet.

Reason 3: They’re a hassle
Users have to open up, or often install, a third-party application before they can read the code. This is time consuming, and unless they’re getting something valuable for it (see point 2), it’s just not worth the effort.

Steven Ambrose from local internet research company World Wide Strategy claims the company’s research indicates that half of all iPhone owners in South Africa have never downloaded an app. People are buying smartphones because they are status symbols, because they are beautiful and because they sport email, instant messaging and a good camera, but they often aren’t comfortable with the other uses of the device, including deciphering QR codes.

Reason 4: They’re in the wrong places
QR codes on billboards have to be the worst idea of all time. Who’s driving down the highway at 120km/h (okay, or 20km/h in Johannesburg traffic) and wants to reach for their phone, open up the app and snap a QR code on a billboard? Only the suicidal.

Magazines, flyers and posters make sense, but alarmingly often codes on these platforms take users to a normal website instead of a mobile-optimised site.

Reason 5: They’re about to become redundant anyway
There are already very few situations in which a QR code offers a solution that can’t be achieved in another way (through SMS shortcodes, URLs etc.), and these limited uses are likely to become even fewer. A technology like NFC (near-field-communication), which is already appearing in the newest smartphones, is far more likely to achieve mass adoption, since it will be native to handsets and will be sincerely useful to the consumer (for instance enabling Google Wallet and allowing people to use their phones as their credit cards).

So, it looks that by the time ordinary consumers work out how to use the QR code, it will already by defunct.

When QR codes can work
It’s not that there is never a good reason to use QR codes, just that the majority of people who are using them now are not thinking it through properly.

QR codes can be a good tool if (and only if):

  1. The audience is right (rich, tech-savvy people)

  2. You’re giving them something of value (to make it worth their while)
  3. You’re considering the full journey (leading them to a mobile-optimised experience that leads on from the real-world material)

As an example, Sun International recently ran a campaign to create online engagement around Springbreak, a major annual weekend party that takes place at the Sun City Resort. The audience is mainly between 18-25, wealthy and most of them have BlackBerrys (the right crowd). It started a BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) group for Springbreak that gave members information about the DJs and programme before anyone else got them (content of value). They could also share photos of the event and ask the organisers questions.

People joined the group by scanning the BBM QR code, which appeared on the Facebook page, on Twitter, the Sun City Blog, on the promoters’ t-shirts at the event and even on fans’ bodies, clothing and cars as part of a “put BBM on your body” competition (they considered the full journey). They had over 2 500 people joining the group within 3 weeks.

The moral of the story? QR codes are just a tool. Like any technology tool, they will only work if there’s a solid strategy behind them.

Author | Sam Beckbessinger

Sam Beckbessinger
Sam likes anything she can take apart and put back together again. This makes her a big fan of Linux and rusty old cars. She is a Digital Planner at Quirk, which is her dream job because it allows her to obsess about the internet, work with some fabulous... More
  • Guest

    The problem of too much hassle because a user has to install an application is usually encountered only once, with the first QR-code. And if enough QR-codes are used, phone companies/network operators will have a QR-app pre-installed (see Japan, where QR-codes are everywhere).

    The missing incentive is an obvious failure on the side of the marketers… a link to exclusive content would of course make people try it in the masses. But other than that my incentive is usually: laziness. Instead of hassling with typing errors I just scan the code, and that’s it.

    Oh, and your stated reason that it’s too rockety-rocket-science stuff from the future (“most tech-savvy (…) Only 11% were able to answer correctly”), try asking five-year-olds in Japan what that funny pixely thing is, and you might be surprised what a little familiarity with spaceship-technology (…) can do.

  • Gezaldo

    There is a QR code on the Memeburn homepage….

  • @Gezaldo — yeah and we have discovered for ourselves what a crock it is :-)

  • I agree with this article because people do not know what QR Codes are.

    I think the “experts” o “designers” should make QR Codes more interesting and familiar transforming simple
    black and white square in more attractive objects.

    I want to give you some examples to better understand what I mean:


  • Reason 3, fully agree. Gave up on the Cell C one and thought why can’t they just sms a link to their mobile site.

  • Gareth McGuire

    Unfortunately I disagree completely. Any technology that is
    not explored will never develop. I have seen amazing QR based campaigns used in
    very artistic and creative ways. South Africa is behind and QR codes are not
    for everyone, yet a clever use of a QR code will grab the attention of just the
    right kind of influencer and can very possible generate a great deal of free
    viral reach for your campaign when the said influencer mentions the subtleties
    of your campaign execution.

    That said I do believe there are a great deal of marketers who do not
    understand QR codes. But this can be a good thing. Not all great revelations
    happened as planned.

  • “The moral of the story? QR codes are just a tool. Like any technology
    tool, they will only work if there’s a solid strategy behind them.”

    Any brand doing anything in digital without a solid strategy behind will never get the true results of any digital channel. QR codes are just another engagement medium – a brand touchpoint – as illustrated by Sun International – they do work.

    @Prezencedigital – how can they be “bollocks” if they work? Not congruent thinking I’m afraid…

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  • 2ov

    QR codes have worked brilliantly for 2oceansvibe radio (and most likely why we average 2 500 app downloads a month) We have QR codes in the right places, all major events (with HOT girls explaining in layman terms to people how it works)(Starts with educating the recipients), Beach umbrellas, T-shirts, on yachts and soon behind the chair headrests of local flights.
    As mentioned above, if you have a good strategy in place and people see value in what they will receive in return then it is a great marketing tool to use.  

  • PI_Style

    Used correctly, qr codes can drive sales if a prospective is driven to the right content.  I used a giant qr code in a billboard campaign (off the highway near a parking lot) and within an hour my client had a $15,000 sale and $60,000 in sales related to the board within three weeks.  Now a days I only scan them for product info, contests or to enter a person’s info into my contacts list (one of the best ways to make your business cards interactive).  Maybe NFC code technology will someday overtake qr codes, but until then….I have more than five reasons why qr codes can be useful and effective.  

  • Research shows that QR codes have been gaining popularity and will continue to do so. Although you do make a valid point about the gains not being worth the effort of a scan, we are merely exploring a new technology and there will be some failing campaigns. On the contrary, Rewbo found a way to use QR codes in a realistic and rewarding manner:  www.rewbo.com

  • Research shows that QR codes have been gaining popularity and will continue to do so. Although you do make a valid point about the gains not being worth the effort of a scan, we are merely exploring a new technology and there will be some failing campaigns. On the contrary, Rewbo found a way to use QR codes in a realistic and rewarding manner:  www.rewbo.com

  • Alex

    For those who believe in QR Codes, check out another awesome QR Code generation tool: http://tagomobile.com

  • QR codes can be used badly, yes. But in cases where people need easy access to content via mobile devices, they are the best we’ve got right now. NFC is some way off from being adopted en masse, but yes, it is a more elegant system. There are a few augmented reality apps. that look interesting, but I think QR codes make sense for lots of reasons, even if they aren’t everyone’s cup of tea.

    I hope it is ok to mention here, my company http://www.tagsquared.com – offers a free system for creating QR codes linked to a mobile site which you can build using our CMS. Our analytics can enable you to see if  people are actually interacting, so you can judge for yourself if they work. We also offer NFC tags that can link to mobile content and can be programmed to point to any URL or your mobile landing page.

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  • Sam, although you
    presented valid points in your article, for the most part I found it rather misleading.

    Have we reached
    enough momentum for QR codes to be an all-encompassing solution, no: and you’re
    right we probably never will. Have the marketers done a poor job of integrating
    this tool into their campaigns, yeah: most QR codes we’ve seen lack value and
    aren’t contextually relevant to the consumer. Online principals don’t always apply
    to mobile and many forget that.

    Are they a
    hassle? Well it depends what you compare the experience to: for me to pull out
    the phone and snap a code on the go takes only a few seconds. I can then engage
    with the content as I go on my way. It is without a doubt faster than SMS and
    hands down an improvement from using a URL (there are a number of issues that I
    won’t get into with using a short URL).

    Most certainly
    QR codes do not belong on a billboard. But even then CK has gotten a lot of
    publicity with their execution: http://svee.co/XR.
    So long as the board is approachable and the creative is intended for pedestrians
    then it could work (definitely not along the highway or in the metro where
    there is no reception). In print and other OOH frames it is a great tool!

    NFC will
    definitely take precedent over QR codes in many scenarios but it will not make
    them redundant and here is why: http://svee.co/XQ

    Italo, I could
    not disagree with you more. A QR code is simply a hyperlink. It is intended to
    allow an easy recognizable gateway to additional content. I’ve encountered many
    marketers that worry about the appearance of the code and forget about the
    content, which leads to Sam’s reason #2. Not to mention Blackberries often have
    challenges scanning a QR code that’s overly graphical and lacks contrast. Here
    is my opinion on QR code design vs. function: http://svee.co/XA

  • Charles Ash

    Thanks for this article. I’m also not convinced that QR codes are anything more than gimmicky fluff for marketing campaigns that are already flaky. I’m not convinced that it’s easier to launch, scan and submit a QR code via some 3rd party app than it would be to simply SMS a code to a shortcode or enter a short URL. Would be interesting having some qualitative data which compares these 2 input methods. I know for a fact that with my Blackberry, I have laboured over trying to scan somebody’s BBM Pin QR code and been annoyed  enough to stop right there and then just use plain old simple QWERTY input. It’s all flash and no substance I’m afraid and this article hits the nail on the head.

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  • Thanks for the Article Sam,

    This may be something to consider, in other words put it on the back burner for now. Once the public are aware of what to do with a QR Code the marketing angle will change.

    Billboards were not the intention, if linked to a ‘mobile ready’ site it should work from a magazine.

    New learning curve, but I am sure it will become user friendly as soon as some tutorials have been released and discussions start to hit the printed paper format. People love new technology and interest will be peaked,  they will want to know all about it.

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  • Here’s a positive perspective on QR Codes that I happen to agree with:  http://blog.effectiveui.com/?p=6962

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