QR: Quick Response…or…Quite Reluctant

From a recent eMarketer article: “QR Codes, the most common of the mobile barcode formats, have not fulfilled their promise” for connecting marketers with customers. In fact, only 11% of the U.S. adult population uses them.

Seems like a painfully slow adoption period for something that was touted as the next best thing to digital sliced bread.

QR (quick response) technology was invented by a Toyota subsidiary in 1994 to track vehicles during the manufacturing process. Pioneering (and smart!) marketers coupled the code’s technical speed with the increase of smart phone usage, they saw the potential to give customers more information faster. Suddenly, traditional print ads became interactive media with very little financial investment. Add a QR code to an ad and send the customer to more information. Sounds good in theory.

Why then, haven’t QR codes delivered on the hype?

Nearly half of all Americans use smart phones. One could assume the same number of people would scan a QR code. That also assumes they already have a code reader on their phone or – that the content behind the code feels important enough to stop what they’re doing to download the reader. Most apps are still entertainment-related. A QR code reader isn’t high on a customer’s list of needs or wants in their busy day.

Anytime a customer is asked to take an action – QR-based or not – there’s an expectation of pay-off. A great number of customers won’t know what to do with the code – or why they should do it. QR codes, placed randomly on a page (as so many are) don’t provide the customer with the context for why they should scan. One might assume that a code on a page implies some sort of valuable return on the customer’s time. Other visual calls to action, the Facebook logo for example, have been in the mainstream long enough that a user expects clicking on it means joining a stream of ongoing content. QR codes don’t offer that same consistent endpoint. A scan represents entry into a dark abyss.

Common QR code fails:

– Code linked to website home page. Guess what? If  customer wants to visit a home page, they’ll do that on their own time. Scanning a code needs to do something better – a coupon of value, sneak peek at a new product demo, a form to enter a contest. (And, by the way, if it is a form, make sure it’s formatted to be easy to complete on a smart phone.)

– Code linked to YouTube videos without assurance that all customers have fast enough service on their phones to view the video. (And, by the way, the video should be less than two minutes. Smart phones are not intended to be a trip to the mega-plex.)

– Broken links. It’s better to send a customer to a campaign-specific landing page then to the site home page. However, many companies move landing pages to disable the original URL at the end of the campaign. Remember that the materials your code is printed on may still be in circulation after the campaign is over. Oops. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. Customers do not like sloppy. Some of the biggest brands have failed in this regard. Look at what happened with JetBlue Airlines. Tragic but, come on, JetBlue. Really?

Despite the lack of mainstream acceptance, many marketers still consider QR codes as part of their campaign strategy. Remember this: Technology gives us speed and convenience but it doesn’t give us judgment.

Before heading down the QR path, think about the risks associated with using codes. They aren’t something to be created in haste. In fact, one could argue that all the variables in executing a QR strategy well make them one of the most difficult marketing tools at our disposal. Deceptive little buggers, aren’t they?
(If you scanned our code an got an error…we rest our case. If it worked for you, it’s your lucky day.)


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