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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).

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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.

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