5 reasons you’re probably wasting time with QR codes


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.


fred brink

If you are making decisions on Branding, and Cutomers and Products you’ve lost my interest in what you have to say about QR. QR is a fantastic, maturing, entry-level reach out to museum and exhibit visitors where institutional budgets are tight and buying/maintianing new media equipment is a non-starter in today’s museum economy.
And I hear the number 60% for ‘adults’ who will be carrying QR compatible or factory-installed QR readers in their smart phones within the next couple of years, which corresponds to the lead time needed for the institution’s to workout the content and get a QR system in place with numerous integrated target stations. It ain’t either-or, it’s ALL ideas worth trying to get a museum’s feet wet with new mobile digital media.

Sue Edelman

I have never had a problem scanning a QR code and I am delighted on almost a daily basis by creative usages of this new technology. I bought some tulip bulbs at Home Depot the other day and out of curiosity, I scanned the code on the bag. It brought me to a mobile site with all sorts of information about how to care for my new plant. I loved it! I’m fully aware that a URL on the package could have done the same thing, but for the 40% of us smartphone users out there who are most likely as instant-gratification-oriented as I am, I thought this was a value-add to my purchase.


This is a great strawman for those who want to promote the use of QR codes. Good job Joe. BTW, I have one attached to my picture on the staff notice board, linked to a set of delicious bookmarks with all my various profiles …

Brett Davis

QR’s help brands reach a more tech savvy audience that generally understand their marketing better than “average consumers”. The more commonplace they become the more consumers will jump on the bandwagon. This article makes me cringe, as if it was written by someone who tried to scan a QR once a few years ago and gave up.

RealtyView TV

To have such a interesting, fact like, great looking expert page like this article is surprising to me to find such a lack of technical knowledge.

Everyone of your points can be dismissed with real understanding of this new form of communication.

I can not use the code on radio but I can use it to bring mobile listeners to the radio program.

Please stop being an expert before finishing the class and maybe we can get business happening again.

Thank you
George Robbins

Alex Andrews

This reads worse than an ‘as seen on TV add,’ It makes the QR code situation look absurdly imposible even though it’s extremely simple. I almost never have to hold the phone still, it usually captures the code before I would have expected it to be able to read it. It was EASY to find apps, both of the ones i’ve used have read EVERY type of QR i’ve put to it. They both also read regular codes. The big PRO to using QR is that in 100% eliminates transcription error of URL’s. A consumer who scans a QR cannot mistake any character because it’s simpler than a copy and paste. This gives companies a direct fast channel directly into the device of any consumer who scans the code wanting to know more. Transmission of contact info also error free. As well as several other things; VIN QR code would be great. I don’t think I’ve ever read an article with more stupid “points.”

Alex Andrews

This reads worse than an ‘as seen on TV add,’ It makes the QR code situation look absurdly imposible even though it’s extremely simple. I almost never have to hold the phone still, it usually captures the code before I would have expected it to be able to read it. It was EASY to find apps both of the ones i’ve used have read EVERY type of QR i’ve put to it. The both also read regular codes. The big PRO to using QR is that in 100% eliminates transcription error of URL’s. A consumer who scans a QR cannot mistake any character because it’s simpler than a copy and paste. This gives companies a direct fast channel directly into the device of any consumer who scans the code wanting to know more. Transmission of contact info also error free. As well as several other things; VIN QR code would be great. I don’t think I’ve ever read an article with more stupid “points.”


It’s interesting that Zoove’s site isn’t mobile friendly when they’re competing in the mobile space. It’s about making things easier for the consumer, right? Might suggest focusing on that first before trying to take down something like QR codes that already have traction with consumers and advertisers…


I’m looking forward to GigaOm’s next post from the CEO of Pepsi: “Why drinking Coke will kill you”

Lindsey Anderson

I don’t agree with this article at all. Simply saying that something is a waste of time because of the lack of immediate response and user base knowledge is just.. dumb. I agree with Steve. Also in terms of cost/benefit ratio of something when that something is free, is compiled in seconds and can be added to a flyer or whatever for almost nothing – I don’t see how you can consider it a waste. Poorly thought out article.

Robert Eastwood

it should be noted that the author is CEO of a company that is a rival of QR codes. So this is basically an ad for him to discredit QR codes to drum up business for his own company’s competing technology.

Nicole Solis

Hi, Robert, and everyone else who shared their feedback here. I’ve weighed in a couple of times on this thread, but I wanted to make sure I weighed in enough that all the commenters saw it.

At GigaOM, we try to make sure our guest posts do not have conflicts of interest, and if there’s a potential conflict of interest, we disclose it in the author’s bio.

As many folks have commented, we should have more clearly disclosed what the author’s company, Zoove, does in his bio. This was an oversight on our part, and I have updated the post to make that more clear.

It’s also led me to rethink some of the ways we treat guest posts. The first change you’ll see is that we’re going to disclose the author’s company in the byline and in the excerpt for the post. I’m implementing that change immediately.

Thanks, again, for sharing your thoughts.

Michael Lund-Andersen

Coming from an unreliable source!!. Would’nt it be appropriate to mention that you work for a competitive technology?? This is beneath contempt of what gigaom.com should be involved in.


QR codes are not always being used cleverly and I agree that flashing them on screen for a few seconds on a TV ad is pretty pointless. The rest of the article is nothing more than poorly argued and shameful self promotion. Advertorials should be clearly identified up-front so we don’t need to waste our time reading them. Very disappointing.

Eric Rowe

Here in New Zealand the local ambulance company has put QR codes on the back of their vehicles. I’m convinced this is just an opportunity to try to drum up new business.


Eric Rowe


I almost can agree with this… then again, I’ve got a business that’s able to use QR codes effectively either as a teaching moment or a removing-friction-in-communication moment ;)

Concerning point #1: QR code readers have been available for nearly any mobile that can run a Java application since roughly 2005 – including mobiles sold in the US before carriers got a bit heavy with application loading on mobiles. If you or anyone constrains the thinking of QR Codes to smartphones only, then you don’t know mobile and need to go back to the basics there.

Concerning your point about cross-media functionality, QR Codes are like any other passive-active channel, it needs to be used in places that make sense for the media. Referencing my example cited above, my QR-encoded business card points to a downloadable vCard of my contact information. Context, people see a business card and remember the communication, they want an easier way to reach me, they don’t want to type it, and are usually not familiar with OCR nor own business card scanning devices. Rather than a code that points to the web (print to web cross-media), its a code that points to their mobile (print to mobile cross-media). This isn’t just effective, but renders the business card as a environmental conversation worth having, again bringing other media streams into the conversation. Simply putting a QR code on your website that points to the website, or on a TV program that points to an unoptimized website isn’t smart – in fact, people doing that and having an opinion similar to that of the article writer might again want to go back to communication basics.

I don;t debate that QR Codes have their problems. And clearly, the use cases don’t lend themselves to the push-overpower-broadcast nature of many who want to implement them. Refining that will take imagination, purpose, and a bending of the technology that’s not shackled to the ways you’ve used other media. Its interactive, therefore you need to start from there and adjust as the personalization aspects come into play.


I’ve been using QR Codes for quite some time and they are work out great. I have a new client base just because I do use them. The best QR Reader app is ScanLife. Go to getscanlife.com on your device and it will take care of getting you the proper app. It can read any and all styles of bar codes. And with their large network of resources and affiliates they have the largest results base of all.

Yes, there are certain limitations. But they are no different than any other technology in its early days. Soon enough we’ll think an article such as this a humorous side note of yesteryear.

Stephanos Savvakis

Sound but a bit overstreched reasoning. I will agree with most that QRs are a tool and a clever one. The more we use it, the better we will become at it


This article paints us all as pathetic idiots who can’t figure out how to hold onto our Smartphones unless our weak arms are being propped up by a tri-pod. Is it really that difficult to scan something and wait for it to load onto a URL? I agree with Steve Briggs.


Smartphones need to have native QR and barcode readers that do not require the use of the camera, a device meant for a completely different function. I guess that’s what NFC is supposed to address, but optical-based readers are the missing step here in the evolution of ‘reading’ something external.


QR codes will soon be replaced by “chips” that we can swipe our phones in front of to bridge the online and offline worlds.

Also I think smart phones and search engines will start including QR code recognition in

Steve Virgin

While recognising one or two of the above points the view is extremely blinkered as there are an endless array of possible applications that have enormous public benefit. Below I explain one case in the UK…

Wikimedia UK recently ran a two month competition called The Wright Challenge, in which they asked volunteers around the world to write pages about exhibits in a small regional museum in Derby. Each exhibit had a Wikipedia QR Code, created by the newly minted Wikipedia QRPedia engine.
The QRPedia site was set up to recognise the preferred language phone settings of a smart phone user. That meant that any visitor to the Derby Museum that had a smart phone could point their phone at the corresponding QR Code on an exhibit and the QR Code would produce a Wikipedia page about the exhibit (or the nearest equivalent) in a pre-selected language.

During the 8 week competition around 1200 Wikipedia pages were written by volunteers in a myriad of languages. This has helped to firmly place a small regional museum and the cultural & public heritage it holds firmly on the digital map. It offers a service to visitors of the museum (the
public) and this pioneering project offers a low cost way in which to attract involvement of a museum’s OWN volunteers in the community as well as experienced Wikipedian editors. The co-creation element is cheap (as the hardware & software of Wikipedia already exists) and can help interest in a museum to extend and grow online to a potential audience of hundreds of millions. In conclusion., what better way is there to understand more about your own country’s cultural heritage than to write, read and discuss it with other like-minded people.
http://slidesha.re/rbHpTy (presentation we gave at TEDX Bristol UK earlier this month)

Andrew J Scott

QR codes are huge in the Japan. I just wonder if it is too little too late here for them to catch on. For real world frequent use there needs to be a “one touch” button to snap a QR code on every phone. In addition, I suspect other technologies will over take it, such as NFC currently being baked into some new devices. We experimented with QR codes at Rummble with some success, although inevitably the cost of distribution, without significant capital, was a problem. http://blog.rummble.com/2010/04/29/nextweb-2010-operation-quebec-romeo-tnw/

Dick Hardt

A thinly veiled attempt at marketing a competitive solution. Shame on GigaOM for not having a disclaimer at the top.

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