5 reasons you’re probably wasting time with QR codes

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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