Emerging Platforms

The QR Code Quandry

Posted by Daniel Flamberg on November 17th, 2010 at 2:32 am

There seems to be a flurry of QR code use. The 2D barcodes, originally developed in Japan in 1994, are showing up in print ads, on billboards, on vehicles, on packaging and in TV spots for a variety of brands. Are they the next cool thing or are they a useless?

The mechanics of QR code use are rudimentary in the United States. Hardly anybody knows what they are. There are no statistics on penetration and the biggest guess is 5 percent. Most phones aren’t factory-equipped with readers. But there are many readers using all kinds of technical standards, most incompatible with each other.

Usefulness and customer experience is a direct function of user dexterity, phone hardware and software settings, network bandwidth and settings and sheer dumb luck. My own experiences have been frustrating and dismal except for the plain vanilla video I eventually got to work.

Proponents argue that QR codes offer the real estate and interactivity that print, outdoor, wearable’s and other media lack. They cite the potential for QR codes to deliver hyperlinks, photos, video, games, coupons, audio, payments and entertainment. Among the suggested uses for the codes are:

  • Enhanced business cards
  • Coupons
  • Shelf talkers
  • Product or ingredients information
  • Recipes
  • Recommendations
  • Reviews & user generated content
  • Micro-payments
  • eCommerce
  • Videos, audio & MP3s
  • Scavenger hunts & contests
  • Ad delivery
  • Maps and directions

Among the early adapters Sears is printing QR codes it’s annual holiday Wish Book. Esquire used them to boost subscription offers. Best Buy put them on in-store signage as did Dicks Sporting Goods and Delta uses them to expedite ticketing. Movie marketers use them to distribute trailers and prompt pre-release demand. Starbucks tried them as a payment device. Ford, McDonalds and Calvin Klein have also experiment with them. Advocates think they will be as big as UPC bar codes and will offer an important enhancement to retail and be a companion to consumers at virtually every point of sale.

The doubters, lead by Dan Neumann, or Organic, argue:

  • It’s not necessary because we can trigger URLs other ways
  • Nobody knows about it
  • Nobody has the right equipment
  • Adoption and penetration growth isn’t likely anytime soon.
  • Experimenters have ignored the customer experience in the rush to be first.
  • Customers' pain of use isn’t offset by what they get.

I’m telling clients to wait and see. This looks like a technology ahead of its customer base where the cool factor obscures what could be significant down stream potential. And even with monster predictions for smartphone purchases and use, the likely uptake for QR readers and codes is iffy, at best.

If clients insist on being first or are desperate to grasp a digital meme perceived to be cool, we are trying to carefully structure the customer experience, build practical use cases, anticipate technical glitches and devise instructions for reader downloads that are simple and easy. We are recommending baby steps – simple POS uses, coupon downloads or instant win contests to gauge consumer appeal and measure operational performance. QR codes are currently a quandary, worthy of both experimentation and skepticism.

5 Responses to “The QR Code Quandry”

  1. Norm Quesnel says:

    Very interesting and informative. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Tamara Sullivan says:

    We're in the process of testing out both the QR codes and Microsoft tags (2 of our retailers are asking for different platforms). I agree with your article completely that we need to wait and see but when you're on the front lines it's hard to stay still and not try and move. I would recommend trying them out since for the most part they're free just be careful where you put them so if you decide they're not right for you they're easy to remove.

  3. Ray Crawford says:

    Interesting... This article made me think of a blog post I did a while back (http://www.with-impact.com/blog/2010/03/22/interactive-print/). This technology is nothing new. People have been "watermarking" images with scannable data for quite some time. Wired actually does it for a lot of their ads using the technology mentioned in my post.

    I agree, Daniel, that at this point, QR codes are a consumer PITA. That being said, I think that the overall idea of having some capability to create deeper engagement of consumers through "print" (or coupon or in store display, etc) is very interesting and is on the horizon. The question is, what will that look like and who will win the platform wars? QR codes? Microsoft's tags? Something else that is a non-perceivable watermark? Who knows. Either way, I think it's something way cool to play with as a (SMALL) part of a client's marketing budget and it's a technology that could take off overnight if people aren't watching.

    On a side note, consider the privacy claims I put on my article concerning print and how, through the use of watermarks and QR codes in particular, might now need "privacy statements" because "Big Brother" (read, corporate America) can now know YOU with a little help from the publishers...

    Thanks for putting your insight, out there!

  4. Josh says:

    Great commentary! Working in point of purchase and out-of-home print advertising it really seems like the marketing teams think this tech is cool, however having a hard time digesting the tracking/analytics of effectiveness. I have no doubt that the QR trend will be the next big thing regardless.

    My team has been working on a real-time QR generator and have posted the beta - http://www.designtoprint.com/tools/QR/
    Check it out and tell me if we are on the right track?

  5. bcotier says:

    Your thoughts are mine too. In Cambridge England this June we are conducting a Tipping Point experiment to see if the convergence of smartphone technology and QR codes are really at mass market levels.

    Did a test in October with what should be an aware crowd of creatives, marketing and web developers. Sad to say less than 10% interacted with the QR code. 100% who did shared the experience through social networks.

    Perception is key here. If someone see one but does not know what to do with it or needs yet another app for it or the site was was not optimized for a mobile experience then the over all experience is tainted.

    What is shocking to me is that the developers of these campaigns forget that the user experience is mobile. It is dependent on WIFI or a 3G and possible poor or degraded signal and a small viewing area.

    Those who understand and create for a well crafted user experience are going to succeed.

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