QR Codes Are Perfect
Lately I’ve been involved in a number of discussions about QR codes and whether they are effective or not, whether they should be used or not, and whether they have a future in marketing.
As a quick recap, QR codes were created in 1994 by a subsidiary of Toyota to track vehicles and parts as they rolled down the assembly line. Almost anything can be encoded in a QR code, from a URL to a contact card and more. The technology is basically flawless and they work very well.
The same, however, can not be said about the people who use QR codes in marketing, or the consumer who scans them.
First of all, QR codes are notoriously misused by marketers. From the infamous NYC subway ads featuring QR codes (placed where there was no mobile access), to QR codes being placed on a web page (so someone sitting at a computer would have to pull out their phone and scan the code, just to go to another web page), the stories of their misuse abound. One of my favourite misuses was at the local CIBC where a sign behind the cashiers featured a QR code. Unfortunately, the image was so small that my phone couldn’t read the image. Also unfortunate was that the cashiers at the bank said that taking photos of the space behind the cashiers was against the rules.
Second, consumers are not all created equal. I consider myself to be an early adopter of technology, but I’m not one of the people who waited in line for the iPhone 4s. In fact, my Blackberry is almost 2.5 years old – mainly because of my cellular service contract and the hardware upgrades I am allowed. I had to find and download a QR code app on my own, which most consumers will never bother to do. Even if a phone does come preloaded with a QR code reader, the odds that the user knows what it is or how to use it are pretty slim. AND, even if you do have it, know what a QR code is, and know how to use it – there is still a chance that it may not work. My Blackberry, a Blackberry Curve 8300 has a crappy camera in it, uses the flash far too often, and doesn’t focus on objects up close very well. The result is that for me, unless conditions are perfect, the scan may not work, even if the QR code is printed clearly, the code was created properly, and the destination URL is set up perfectly for mobile browsing. In fact, the impetus behind this blog post was a discussion that began at the #yqrtweetup last night because of the number of people who had printed QR codes on their name tags. The lead image in this post was my phone’s scan of a QR code on an attendees name tag – an attendee who I have a lot of respect for and who is very capable with both marketing and technology. There was no technical problem with his QR code, the problem was with my technology.
What Can Marketers Learn From This?
First, you need to think long and hard about ever using a QR code in your marketing materials. Think about where the code will be used, where people will view the code, and what they will be doing when they view the code. Billboards on a highway are a terrible place to put a QR code (what do you want people to do, scan it at 110km/h? Pull over?), but a sign that people walk past regularly might be OK. Why do you want people to scan the QR code? I think movie posters would be great places to put QR codes – you could scan them and go immediately to the movie trailer. But if all you want to do is send people to your website, why not just include the URL ( if you still want to use it to send someone to a website, make sure you ALSO include the URL so that people can still type it in manually)?
Is the destination URL mobile friendly? It better be, because I’m not carrying my laptop around to take pics of QR codes. Who is your target audience? Do they have smartphones with large data plans? Are you interrupting your customers, or are you adding value to their experience? Are they allowed to and are they able to use their phone where you want them to scan the QR code?
QR codes will not be used forever. Eventually you will just be able to take a picture of an item, and your phone will do a search on that item (ala Google Goggles). Eventually, you will be able to scan a UPC code and get the prices for that item at all the stores in a 5 mile radius of where you are. Until then, QR codes are an effective middle step – a booster to get people used to using their phones to scan items for more information. But if we, as marketers, continue to misuse this tools, we will turn off consumers and cripple the technology.
Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben is famous for saying “With great power comes great responsibility.” As marketers, we have a lot of power to influence consumers – both in their purchasing habits and in the way that they use technology. But we also have a responsibility to use that power in the proper way. We can all benefit greatly, both for ourselves and for our clients, from QR codes, but only if we stop doing stupid things with them. If consumers become accustomed to QR codes being misused they will begin to ignore them.