QR codes, those tiny 2D codes are big on is hype, with proponents touting them as the bridge between the offline and online world. But that offline to online bridge is structurally flawed and may be keeping many brands from reaching their audience effectively.

QR Cupcakes

Updated. Every brand is trying to catch the attention of today’s on-the-go consumer. Many are turning to these things called Quick Response (QR) codes or other types of scannable 2D barcodes. For the unfamiliar, and judging by some surveys, that’s most of us, QR codes are those the little blotchy square barcodes popping up on everything from coins to the unmentionables of Olympic volleyball players. These kinds of bar codes come in many flavors, including the black and white QR variety, multi-colored Microsoft Tags, and others.

One thing these tiny 2D codes are big on is hype, with proponents touting them as the bridge between the offline and online world.  But that offline to online bridge is structurally flawed for most and may be keeping many brands from reaching most of their audience effectively.

Here are five key reasons why:

Not everybody has a smartphone

The simple fact is that most mobile phones cannot read a QR code.  While smartphones are the fastest growing segment of the mobile handset market, the Nielsen estimates that 60 percent of cell phones in use today are not smartphones. Surprising, right? You wouldn’t advertise in a language most of your target audience doesn’t speak. Why are QR codes any different?

The process can be confusing

2D bar codes are not monolithic. There are multiple types of incompatible codes and many different barcode readers, leaving users to figure out which reader is right for which code.  A quick search of “QR Code Reader” in the Android Marketplace or iTunes Store returns hundreds of free and paid apps.  It’s a bit much for a general consumer and can quickly turn the whole QR experiment from interesting to frustrating.  Why does this magazine ad prompt me to download a reader first before using it, while another just shows a QR code? Which bar code app do I choose?  Does this app work for my phone?  Will it work with the code I’m trying to scan? It’s a mess.  And, most codes don’t reinforce the brand image in anyway, unlike branded URLs or vanity numbers.

They lack cross-media functionality

Advertisers want to maximize their marketing spends effectively, and many are willing to experiment. But QR codes have their place. Flashing a QR code on a TV screen for 3-5 seconds at the end of a commercial or using them on highway billboards probably aren’t the best ideas.  And of course, they are completely incompatible with a radio promotion.  The lack of cross-media functionality is a severe limitation on the QR code’s use as a direct response method across all kinds of ads or promotions.

They may be too much trouble for the consumer

Consumers are notoriously unreceptive to learning new, complicated behaviors without an obvious, substantial benefit. And the QR code is nothing if not a behavior change. Consider that before a user can scan a code she must:

  1. Plan ahead and download a QR reader app, hoping that it is the right app for the code she will download.
  2. Find a QR code of interest.
  3. Check the lighting or disable the camera’s flash to reduce glare which can muck up the scan.
  4. Frame the code in the reader’s phone camera lens just right.
  5. Hold the phone very still.
  6. Scan the image.
  7. Wait while the image uploads (using a portion of her limited data allotment)
  8. Finally click the mobile URL or whatever the software sends her to activate the content or get the promotion.

For most people, you’ve lost them at the first step because they don’t have a QR reader to begin with, don’t understand how to use it, or simply don’t want to bother. And lest you think it’s just us older folks who aren’t clamoring all over QR codes like today’s tech-savvy youth — think again.  It seems many of them don’t get QR codes either. A survey of high school and college students by marketing firm Ypulse found that 64 percent of respondents didn’t know what a QR code was. Of the 36 percent who did, less than one in five had ever bothered to scan one.

A bad experience could be prohibitive

A poor or failed QR code experience could leave a frustrated user with a negative experience with the brand and the promotion itself. In a recent survey conducted by Lab24, only 13 percent of those polled were able to successfully scan the survey’s QR code that was provided to them.  In other words, nearly 9 of 10 attempts failed.  That’s an astounding failure rate for something that’s supposed to let people engage with your brand on the go.

QR codes do have their place, such as comparison shopping in Best Buy if someone is so inclined and technically enabled.  A recent comScore survey reinforced this point. Print publications and product packaging were the top two sources of scanned codes, with most activity happening in the home or in a store.  Scannable barcodes have their uses, but slapping them everywhere without thought for the medium, message, or the target customer is misguided.

Consumers deserve better than this. They deserve simplicity. They deserve value. They deserve respect for the time they spend interacting with a product, a business or a brand. Marketers must heed this call or risk building a wall between themselves and the consumer increasingly wary of the value we can deliver to their mobile phone. We can do better.

Joe Gillespie is the President and CEO of Zoove, a registry of self-chosen, short dialing codes, called star-star numbers, than brands can use as an alternative to QR codes.

For more information about mobile trends, check out our GigaOM Mobilize conference Sept. 26 and 27 in San Francisco.

Update: This post was updated on September 26 to more clearly describe the author’s company, Zoove.

Image courtesy of Flickr user clevercupcakes.

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  1. Using this reasoning we should have done away with the internet in 1996 because most people didn’t have a personal computer, they had never heard of web sites and didn’t know how to download and install a browser, and web sites that did exist were hideous. While it’s true that QR codes are often misused, they can be a very useful marketing tool when done right. Come back and re-read this post in 2 or 3 years.

    1. I was thinking the same thing, Steve.

    2. Just had to agree and reply – I remember giving a talk to business men in Aberdeen some 15 years ago and (being no spring chicken even then) talked about internet, hand held devices – they all laughed, thought I was mad! and said that the internet would be a 7 day wonder!!

    3. Jason ‘Zeus’ Brown Steve Briggs Monday, September 26, 2011

      Completely agree. Plus, you don’t need a smart phone, you need a camera phone. And a few of the steps are completely bogus. As someone else mentioned, the image doesn’t get uploaded. The flash generally isn’t used, and the camera doesn’t need to be lined up just right and held very still for any decent reader. And using not being compatible with radio as a reason not to use it in other media would destroy every type of advertising.

    4. agree…here’s a response in QR Code format…take that!

      1. Completely agree with @ Steve Briggs and thank you for the response in QR format.

      2. Congratulations! You were the first QR code I scanned. I just downloaded the app because I’m seeing these everywhere and need to be up to date.

  2. Some of these points don’t square with experience, to me.

    There is essentially one 2D barcode format: QR code. This accounts for over 95% of usage out there. A handful of applications use Data Matrix, which any major barcode reader also reads. Both are free and open. This idea that there’s a format compatibility problem is one promulgated by late-90s barcode companies who have an interest in selling their old “solution”: their own niche proprietary format, that nobody uses.

    No barcode reader today works by uploading an image to a server; it’s more than easy enough to decode on the handset. No barcode reader worth its salt makes you actively “scan” the image either, by pressing a button, if that’s what you mean. It just happens when the barcode comes into view. This really is not a difficult process today.

    Point taken about finding the reader, but anecdotally, it seems that most Android devices come with one preinstalled for example.

    At the end of the day QR codes remain a useful gimmick. They’re a glorified hyperlink and always will be, and a minor enabling technology in linking print to online. (Agree it’s not for radio or TV, but, the not-TV-or-radio universe ain’t small!)

    QR codes aren’t the big deal many writers make them out to be, but there’s nothing really wrong with them. They sure do what they’re meant to do, quite well.

  3. Number 1 reason, CueCat Scanner.

  4. The Japanese have been using them for years and Europe caught on quickly as well. If Americans take longer to catch on to new technology and phones don’t come with QR reader software loaded then it’s time to wake up.

    QR codes aren’t the problem, they are just tools. Every reason listed above was addressed in more advanced countries and the USA will eventually catch up.

  5. Of course his reasoning is weak. His company is pushing some pathetic StarStar number scheme. Good luck with that. They even slam QR codes right on their homepage. I’m really disappointed with GigaOm posting these obvious marketing pitches—especially inaccurate propaganda ones like this. Make some attempt to keep it honest and unbiased.

    1. Thanks for pointing this out. We do try to make sure that our guest posts are as free from conflicts of interest as possible, and that, if there is a potential conflict of interest, that we clearly disclose it. At minimum, we should have more clearly disclosed what Zoove does. I’ve updated the post to reflect that.

  6. I agree QR Code are disappointing so far, but just because there is lack of imagination from companies. Have fun here http://postmodernview.com/2011/09/02/qr-code-or-sex-the-final-marketing-tool/

  7. The company of the author (Zoove) proposes a different solution for the same problem. A disclaimer would have been appropriate.

    1. Agreed. What else should we expect.

      1. Thanks so much for your comments. We should have described more clearly what Zoove does. I just updated the post to clarify that.

  8. Grossly skewed perspective. The list of 8 is so elongated. Collectively taking about 1 second. Subconsciously. Just as “webex” said, bad form by GigaOm.

  9. Apple need to push this into their iOS5 as standard, people trust Apple and their pre-loaded native apps, same with every other operating system…

    We cannot ignore the dramatic increase in usage stats, not sure they will be used enough to push people back to print advertising though.

  10. boom. I agree w/ Steve Briggs.

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