For years now, marketers, businesses and, well, everybody have touted QR codes as the next big thing. That’s largely because QR codes offered a glimmer of the future, a way to bring physical interactions into the much more malleable (and trackable) digital space. But despite the overwhelming push by marketers to stick a QR code on anything they are publishing, marketing, and eating (yes, eating), there’s been increasing skepticism about its real-world use.The skeptics have some pretty good facts on their side. In 2011, a Forrester Research study pegged adoption of QR codes by U.S. adults at 5%, up from a meager 1% the year before. Then, in April, a Temkin Group study found that only 24% of U.S. adults are using these codes, a statistic that is a little encouraging but still tepid. These figures coupled with some serious dismal marketing anecdotes might make you think QR codes are ineffective, and you’d be right. Here’s why.
1. Worthless Content
From a marketing perspective, QR codes offer obvious value and they’re easy to create, cheap, trackable, and open up a world of possibilities for consumer-product interactions. From the consumer side, however, the value is not as clear. Scanning a code is cumbersome and costs the consumer time and effort. Plus, its value is unknown. Worse still, 90% of the time it’s a link to a website not optimized for mobile. Now you’ve frustrated the consumer and wasted their time, which creates negative sentiment. This is why you must provide the consumer with a valuable reason to scan the code. Consider a significant discount, the first chapters of a book, a free drink at the bar, even a space-specific YouTube video. What you don’t do is use it as a link to your website or Facebook page. That will only annoy your customer.
2. Consumer Awareness
The biggest problem that QR codes have is that consumers consistently have demonstrated that they don’t have a clue what they are. An ArchRival study of college students found that out of 534 of our nation’s best and brightest, 78.5% didn’t know how to scan a QR code. Marketers are so excited by the potential and intrigued by the concept that they’ve totally forgotten that consumers are not marketers. Marketers watch ads, click sponsored tweets, and yes, scan QR codes because they have a natural curiosity and passion for brand marketing. But the average consumer needs a marketer to outline to them what action it is they are supposed to take. When it comes to a QR code that means tell them what it is. Consider including a simple list of instructions with a recommended app spelling out how to use the code itself. If you coupled that with compelling content, you’ll introduce consumers to the concept of QR codes as well as how to take advantage of them.
3. Value as a Medium
The other consideration that is often ignored is the intrinsic value of the code as a piece of media itself. More often than not, QR codes are used as a simple link to a company website or specific landing page. The thought process being that it saves users the trouble of entering a complicated URL. This would be true if all a user had to do was wave their device over the code. However, let’s consider the user’s side of things. In order to scan a barcode, a user has to: 1. Get out their phone; 2. Unlock their phone; 3. Boot the app; 4. Get the code in focus and scan it. This is assuming they already have an app that scans barcodes. For most users, it’s faster to just search Google for whatever the code is giving them a shortcut to. To address this issue, use a six-to-ten-second guide as a rule of thumb for determining usefulness. If you’re not saving your target at least that much time, scrap the code.
4. Location, Location, Location
Location is another important consideration. QR codes are showing up everywhere, on everything, with seemingly zero thought about context. (For some interesting use-cases, check out WTFQRCODES.) For instance, besides being impossible to scan, QR codes on highway billboards are dangerous and waste valuable visual real estate. A shortened URL, especially one created with a vanity URL shortener, would be easier and more effective. Likewise, QR codes on company vehicles don’t really make much of an impact either, and those are mostly going to be parked directly outside of your business anyways. And QR codes on subway ads are useless too since there’s no data connection for users to load your page. The examples only get stranger from there. The best solution is to walk through your implementation in a real-world scenario to make sure it will actually be useable.
QR codes are ugly. Worse still, they’re indistinguishable from codes used for industrial purposes. So a code on a product can be misinterpreted as a tracking barcode instead of a marketing outlet. The good news is they don’t have to be ugly. With a little Photoshop, you can round off the corners of the ugly blocks, giving a sleek feel to the code, and it will still scan. You can also generate codes with up to 30% redundancy, meaning you can remove 30% of the code and instead put your company logo or information about what it unlocks directly into the code. Use a URL shortener to make the code even more manageable and trackable in tools like Google Analytics. There are some limitations to this, since certain parts of codes are integral and can’t be deleted, but it really opens up the creative opportunities for some awesome design work. Better still, you can delete portions of the code to shape it into something else entirely, like a letter in your brand name, or even your logo. The gist is you can make it pretty.So now you know why your QR codes are a failure and how to fix them. Of course, many are quick to point out that NFC devices are on the horizon and will probably displace these ugly little blocks. Given the encouraging uptick in adoption and the low cost of implementation of QR, however, there’s reason to believe that they will become much more relevant before NFC is fully implemented. The guidelines above will help you make the most out of that opportunity.
Posted by Janine E. Mooney, Editor
May 18, 2012