As someone who has done my fair share of QR code bashing over the years, I admit that I never really learn my lesson. I keep snapping the codes I find, like the guy on the beach with a metal detector, ever hopeful a great experience will be on the other side.
At least week's OMMA Mobile I heard a few people here and there sniff at QR, either as a kludgy technology that requires too much of the consumer and tends to deliver too little, or as a mode of interaction destined for obsolescence when near-field communication streamlines interaction. And so in the spirit of fairness I spoke with QR code facilitator and marketing specialist ScanBuy this week to ask for a few examples of QR done right. CEO Mike Wehrs was quick to outline what not to do with QR codes.
"Don't create a code and just point to the home page of a [standard] Web site," he warns. There is no worse experience than requiring a user to navigate an unwieldy, data-dense site that isn't even optimized for touch or smaller screens. But part of the problem, he admits, is internal to many companies. Larger companies especially can have trouble coordinating what is on the web content side in concert with a QR program. One hand often doesn't know what the other is doing. Little things like landing pages not being in synch can happen often.
No kidding. I can't even count the number of dead links QR codes have pointed me to, or how many campaigns were supposed to be live when I tried them, only to be told by someone pushing the new effort on the press that it wasn't quite ready yet. I have been the unwitting tester/troubleshooter on more than a few of these campaigns.
Value is the real challenge for codes, I think. In my experience too many campaigns think that a promo video is some kind of payoff for going to the trouble of snapping and sending a code. Too many of these campaigns, whether they realize it or not, presume that the user is still enamored with the novelty of getting a video on their phone or seeing a phone interact with a fugly looking code on the side of an in-aisle stand-up. In fact, most of us have been sending photos and videos to one another for years on phones -- long before smartphones came along. This stuff really isn't as novel to most consumers as marketers might like to think.
Wehrs says some marketers are trying to answer the value question very directly. He points to the Macy's print campaign that was designed to push people into stores. Activating the code would tell the user in what special three-hour window on a certain day special deals would be available to them in-store. When users got to the store they already knew how to use a QR code and could look for them to activate the deal. "Train people on a behavior and give them value for their time," he says.
Well, maybe. The "behavior" piece is where I continue to be skeptical. Betting on acclimating people to a new habit is one of the hardest, heaviest lifts in media, and it has spelled the ruin of many digital businesses. Wehrs says that the extra steps of loading an app to take a picture to send to a brand to get some content in return is not as onerous as I might think. He says that the reflex of loading an app to get a task done is becoming second nature to smartphone users. The gulf is between smartphone and feature phone. "Whether the app is pre-installed or nor, if a person has a smartphone they will scan ten times more than a person with a feature phone, even if the app is pre-installed on the feature phone."
One of the problems with the many bad QR code experiences out there is that it is training people that the code-snapping behavior does not lead to anything worthwhile. Maybe my family is especially cynical, but they just chortle at me when they see me pull out my phone at inopportune times just to snap another code. "Again?" my daughter chides. "There is a definition of insanity that covers this, you know?"
Codes are Forrest Gump's box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get. Telegraphing the content of the landing experience is cumbersome, but perhaps worthwhile. For Home Depot, for instance, ScanBuy helped them place QR codes in newspaper full-pagers and circulars on the sections involving Martha Stewart Living-branded merchandise. Wisely, they actually headline the code with "Scan the code for More Martha," which leverages Stewart's personality and connection with the shopper most likely to focus on this page, clearly and simply declaring some value to the process. Now, to their credit the mobile experience on the other end was among the better ones I have seen from a QR code, in that the video from Martha was actually helpful (design ideas) and there was a menu of real options for the user (click to call) and a link to a real and rich-mobile-optimized Home Depot site.
Of course getting me there did require print instructions for downloading an app if needed as well. All this takes space and time that could be focused on other tasks in that precious marketing space. Which raises the issue of scale and making the basic calculation about where assets like space in mass produced materials are best allocated and their relative ROI.
Remember how for years digital teams at publishers and brands fought to get their URL included in TV and print assets? The same battle must be going on now over how much mobile is worth pushing? Wehrs clearly has worked on his answer to that question at more than a few pitch meetings. "What is the response rate you get right now from a catalog?" he says. "The response is zero. There is no interactivity. So any interaction from the first scan forward is better. Every scan you should view as an interaction with your customer you wouldn't get any other way.">
Wehrs says that scale tends to follow quality. Poor QR experiences without on-page instructions can see response rates as low as .5%, while codes that are well positioned and with good end user experiences clearly signaled by the print creative can see up to 15%. And generally, the response rates are climbing as more people play around with the codes.
In fact in our own Center for Media Research report today, a study by Pitney Bowes found that 9% of small to medium-sized businesses had tried QR codes in the past year.
The codes are coming. But as consumers rifle through good and bad ones, the real question is what larger lesson they take away from these experiences. Will they learn that mobile marketing is stepping up to the plate more often than not and rewarding the user for making the extra effort?