Skip to content

Why QR Codes are NOT Necessarily the Next Best Thing

In part of my ongoing research for latest and emerging trends for mobile marketing, I have researched the use of QR codes and whether they are an effective means of delivering targeted marketing campaigns. At first glance, QR codes are definitely an enticing way to engage audiences who are active mobile users, and should definitely be explored as a way to expand into mobile marketing. In fact, in a recent social media / interactive strategy that I developed for a major retailer, I included an entire section of how QR codes can be used to engage tweens, since they consume more mobile media than any other demographic. But, as comes with the territory of technology, the adoption rate is dependent on an infrastructure that supports it. The adoption of QR Codes is slow in coming because of two big caveats: 1) a QR reader is required; and 2) the QR reader isn’t native to mobile devices.

To expand on this further, Threeminds contributor, Dan Neumann just posted an article about why we don’t need QR codes in the US.  Having tried and tested QR codes and readers myself, Dan’s thoughts are on point.

Marketers often ask why QR code technology for mobile phones (and other 2D barcode tech) hasn’t made it to the mainstream in North America. There have been a few notable efforts, some of which are still ongoing, but for the most part the technology remains esoteric and unused.

There’s a very good reason for this. In North America we don’t need this technology.

Quick Response (QR) codes were used to solve a very specific problem, inputting URLs. In NA, the majority of people who use their mobile phones to do anything more than make calls have a QWERTY keypad. The main reasons this tech took off in Japan and other parts of Southeast Asia are and not in North America are:

1. Carriers there ensured that reader applications were installed on every device.
2. Most phones in those countries didn’t (and still don’t) have qwerty – or equivalent – keypads, so using 2d barcodes as a way to quickly link to a site made sense.

It’s difficult to find data on QR reader penetration outside Japan and Korea, but to be wildly generous let’s assume that in the US it’s 5%. Even if this were the case, the potential reach is far lower than it would be if a URL were used instead.

So why are marketers still intent on forcing this tech on the American public? Recent campaigns by Ford and Ralph Lauren use 2D barcodes with little regard for the implications imposed on would be users. In the case of the ford campaign, users would need to perform one of the following actions before arriving at actual content:

“Simply open your phone’s browser and download the free app at or text ‘Tag’ to 4Ford. Then follow the directions to scan or snap this tag to see features come to life.”

At the end of this convoluted path is a video, so why not simply print a short URL that links directly to the video or a mobile site where users can watch multiple videos? There’s no good reason.

Given that the same functionality can be achieved with greater reach using a plain URL, use of QR codes as a replacement or supposed shortcut to web-based content adds little value to the campaign. In fact, it likely detracts from it. We don’t have barcode reader penetration in NA, but we do have QWERTY keypads which means inputting a URL is trivial.

There are other uses for 2D barcodes that make sense. In particular, expect to see 2D barcodes deployed as part of a POS redemption mechanism for mobile coupons. For more on this, check out this post on the new Starbucks iPhone app.

Dan Neumann

I think QR codes should definitely be considered and researched by any thorough interactive marketing strategist; however, in line with the points Dan raises, there are some changes that would have to occur first. Namely:

  1. QR Codes will need to become more mainstream — No one knows about QR codes and how to use them. The origination of QR codes started out because of a very specific need – commercial tracking and inventory management. The growing trend to use QR codes has to become bigger than just as a more dynamic means to deliver targeted marketing campaigns. In order for mobile users to more readily adopt QR codes and the use of them, we need to start seeing them applied in ways that are relevant to a consumer’s every day life.
  2. The QR reader application would have to be native to mobile phones — If someone doesn’t already have a QR reader, they will be required to leave the marketing campaign path in order to install a QR reader for their phone either through a third-party site or via a WAP push, and at that point, you might as well say goodbye to that conversion.
  3. The QR reader software readability MUST be improved to ensure reliability — Having tested out several different QR reader applications myself, it is clear that there is still some much needed  improvement to balance the limitations of the mobile device to “scan” the QR code with the application’s ability to decode it correctly.
  4. The consumer experience must be accounted for — In order to effectively use QR codes as part of a marketing campaign, it’s essential that the overall user experience be taken into consideration. That is, I’ve seen the retail industry hop onto the QR code bandwagon more than any other. However, the retail industry also relies on intensely graphic-rich web sites that do not render well on mobile devices. The implementation of a QR code campaign requires a mobile friendly web site.

There are some companies who have dabbled with QR marketing campaigns, although I haven’t seen any reports on how successful any of these campaigns were, and would definitely be interested in what kind of conversions these campaigns saw and whether there was any ROI.

We Are Plus ( launched a high-tech, Manhattan-based scavenger hunt for Dunny Series 2009 (a collectible vinyl toy that entered the market last month) by vinyl toy designer Kidrobot, planet Earth’s premier creator and retailer of limited edition toys, clothing, artwork and books.

PepsiCo Inc. used mobile advertising and content distributed via 2D bar codes to engage with its target audience of 18-24-year-olds and promote its Pepsi Max brand.

Colgate-Palmolive launched a viral mobile marketing campaign to provide its target audience the opportunity to learn more about Speed Stick® products on-demand through their mobile phone via QR Codes.

So, it will be interesting to see how QR codes will impact mobile marketing in the coming months. Don’t get me wrong… I LOVE new technology and would love to see the gap between the physical and digital worlds narrowed even more. Have you considered QR Codes as part of your mobile marketing strategy? If so, what are some of the challenges and research that you have found? Speak your mind below!

6 thoughts on “Why QR Codes are NOT Necessarily the Next Best Thing”

  1. I think this post has dated itself, QR codes are now native on all android phones, and easy to download on blackberry, iphone and symbian devices. They will never eliminate urls on ads, but for those who know what they are, they will continue to be a time-saver and a great pull-marketing tactic.

  2. Humm Nick seems to be thinking along the same path I’m thinking. Analogy maybe ” allowing people to choose what to eat verses being fed something they may not like to eat will provide for a fulfilling meal “. Look at the ” off the chart ” data regarding target flash full screen mobile ads to those who like whats being served for breakfast, lunch and diner ( analogy II ). Think company is greystripe. The numbers are mind boggling. QR is the perfect place to eat.

  3. Advertisers need to use them differently. For example, brands should look to capture new Facebook and Twitter followers with the codes, NOT just shove worthless video content at users. The landing pages need to be smart and targeted while optimizing the phones browser with quick links vids and social pages. There are platforms like Tappinn popping up where you can create mobile content quickly and assign them QR codes.

    When the easier to create, the demand will follow. Connect everything.

Comments are closed.

Contact Us