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5 reasons you’re probably wasting time with QR codes

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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.

73 Responses to “5 reasons you’re probably wasting time with QR codes”

  1. bestof5rr

    Much of this dissent sounds like it comes from QR techie fanboys. As a marketer, I see QR codes stupidly used every day and I say stupidly because of one simple reason: There is rarely any incentive for the reader or viewer to whip out her phone and scan the blob. Usually the mailpiece or ad says, “For more information, scan this code with your smart phone.” Which leaves me wondering why they didn’t use that space to provide more human-readable information. Keep It Simple Stupid. Or maybe QR codes are a prop for incompetent copywriters.

  2. Amanda Mills

    myself, i own a smart phone, i know what they are
    and i havent bothered downloading!
    my exhusband on the other hand- one of the first things he downloaded when he got his new phone

  3. Oh, I just read the other comments and hadn’t realized that the author is dissing QR Codes to promote his other thing. This is a massive disappointment in GigaOm, I’m going to complain directly to Om Malik and the odds of me reading GigaOm in the future have now diminished. This goes a long way toward tarnishing GigaOm’s reputation for quality journalism. Very very disappointing.

    • Nicole Solis

      Hi, Eddie. Thanks for your comments. We do try to make sure our guest posts are free from conflicts of interest like this, and, if there is a potential conflict, our standard practice is to disclose it in the bio. We should have disclosed what the author’s company does in his bio. I’ve updated the post to more clearly reflect that.

  4. This article is not the quality I’m used to reading on GigaOm by the usually great authors like Higginbotham, Malik, Tofel et al. There was no data at all to back up the author’s assertion that QR Codes have failed (fail or succeed, show us some data, show us some research).

  5. I’m strictly from Missouri (the “show me” state) when it comes to QR codes. Then again, I’m a skeptic about almost every new marketing tactic that comes along trumpeting it’s ability to change everything. It’s not that I’m a technophobe; just the opposite: my vanity license plate is RLYDOPTR (closest I could come to early adopter). It’s just that the hype almost always overtakes the practical application.

    So I agree with all these points. But none of them obviate the useful application of QR codes in an appropriate context. Of course, the same holds true for every new marketing tactic. And, as with every marketing tactic old and new, whether QR codes are used ought to be determined not by their novelty and geek chic but by their strategic relevance and appropriateness given the messaging and media used in the campaign.

    For example, a presentation this past week by the marketing manager of Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada illustrated a rather good use of the codes. Clicking on the QR in the festival’s printed program for the new season brings you to a video by the festival director who says if you’re watching this video, you must have a copy of our program in your hands and then goes on to supplement the printed program with video and other rich-media. This is an effective and strategically relevant deployment of QR that, notwithstanding the validity of Joe’s first point, greatly enlarges the experience for a lot of the target audience. And builds that bridge from the offline to the online where — here’s that strategic relevance again — the festival is trying to sell more and more of its tickets.

    On the other hand, and contrary to one of the comments here, I have seen QR codes in television ads, an obvious and ridiculous misapplication.

  6. I have to agree with those calling for more forthcoming disclosure of the writer’s interests. It is disingenuous to publish this as though it were mere analysis or opinion, when the author stands to benefit financially from the demise of QR codes.

    Gigaom, you need to reconsider your editorial standards. Please address this.

    That said, I find QR codes insipid and annoying, and will probably never use one.

    • Nicole Solis

      Hi, Aaron. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. We do try to avoid conflicts of interest in our guest posts and to disclose any potential conflicts of interest from the authors. You’re right, we should have disclosed what Zoove does in the author’s bio. I’ve updated the post to make that clearer.

  7. I agree this seems like a marketing pitch, with a clear agenda. The article does not bother me as each of his points are disputable. The main argument I would have is that qr codes are only for marketers. There are many uses that focus in connecting the real world to the virtual world that make life easier in a moble enviorment. Sit back and see how new uses emerge as smartphone adoption has begun to reach it’s tipping point… ( this post is sponsored by ;) ) – Bradley Lewis CEO of Skanz

  8. John Littlefield

    For the small amount of space that a QR Code takes it is worth it to me to print it with instructions to AT&T’s which does a great job of supporting all the major phone platforms. I use it for newspaper advertising which greatly expands my ability to connect with a prospect.

  9. Gaurav Bhandari

    Do you really think QR is waste of time?? Sorry to defer you but I have following comments on your each point:
    1. Not everybody has a smartphone: This is not applicable nowadays. I guess you are referring to the year 1990’s.
    2. The process can be confusing: I guess one who knows QR can use it at ease. It can be due to lack of knowledge that one may feel the process as confusing
    3. They lack cross-media functionality: Why did’nt you cover QR codes at railway stations/ bus stands/ magazines in this section?

  10. Great article, thank you. Will tweet it.

    More and more clients are starting to ask for QR codes simply because ‘they are the latest thing’. Your article raises some interesting points – especially the Nielsen stats; are they relevant to the UK?

    Also, the effect of a poor user experience; if the user scans a QR code on advertising material about a specific widget, and arrives at the home page of their website without direct relevance to the widget it makes a poor impression. QR codes need to form part of a marketing strategy that can be measured.

  11. I don’t agree. We have installed QR on panels in cities, museums and festival in Italy since 2009 and we are seeing a surprisingly growing of use of them. Consider Nokia phones had qr scanner in old phone models (not smartphone)

  12. This appallingly biased post should be clearly labelled *at the top* as either a sponsored post, if it was paid-for as seems likely, or as a guest post from someone who is selling an alternative to QR codes (Zoove).

    GigaOM’s standards have slipped further than usual with this one.

  13. Boris Mann

    As @webvex says, this from a competitor that still uses primarily SMS. Hey, GigaOm, just saying he’s the president of Zoove isn’t enough — it should be disclosed that he’s essentially dumping on his competition.

    The point about not everyone having a smartphone is also misguided. Many older “feature” phones actually come with a QR code reader pre-installed (e.g. pretty much every Symbian phone, so wider usage basis in Europe).

    I agree that the magical world of NFC will be much better … but QR code is something that you can experiment with today.

  14. Sriram Vadlamani

    Here’s what I think of the 5 points you mentioned. I have to say, I disagree on all 5 of them.

    1. Not everybody has a smartphone — QR reader can work with a camera and an app. Feature phones are coming with apps these days. No?
    2. The process can be confusing — Could be. But so is every process. Those who can be confused will be confused.
    3. They lack cross-media functionality — QR codes will and should stick to the media which works with them. Paper is obviously one. Billboards might not be the one unless the cameras become all powerful. But flashing QR code on a tv screen is gormless. Haven’t seen anyone use it.
    4. They may be too much trouble for the consumer — Only one thing here. Evolution. Will get better.
    5. A bad experience could be prohibitive — Now this reason will be in the five reasons for almost everything in the technology.

    Read this : Forget Rashi, What’s your QR Code –>

    • Kane Russell

      Great insight in this comment and agree on all accounts. I like the link too, as it has some great info. I wrote a QR Code eBook that explains how to address the points made by the author of this article, as like all things strategy is what’s important:

  15. Mark Terry

    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.

  16. 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.

    • Nicole Solis

      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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. Steve Briggs

    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.