Down the QR Code Rabbit Hole

"What the hell are you looking for?" barks my fiancée in her now-familiar bride-to-be tone of impatience. Four weeks out from a wedding and everything takes on new urgency and little things get writ large. "I am not marrying a shoe fetishist, am I?"

Well, while she shopped for the right pair to match the wedding dress, I was rooting among the shelves for QR codes. I admit that a guy taking phone cam pictures of shiny black stilettos is going to raise some questions. But my understanding was that Macy's had been instituting in-store mobile codes that shoppers could activate.  

"Focus, please! Or I will call security on you," she warned.   

Actually, the fetish association is not misplaced. It is no small thing that in-store 2D codes require a weird public act of consumer devotion. You are not just browsing items. Suddenly you are taking a picture of a poster, a tag, a shelf. You are making a declaration of interest. For a lot of shoppers that may be trivial, but many others like me tend to keep it cool in store aisles and feel a bit conspicuous scanning a code.

I am not sure I ever found Macy's instances of the program they have been touting lately. I did find a QR code on a tag attached to MissMe jeans. It kicked me over to a nicely designed mobile-friendly site that invited me to rotate the iPhone to enter the site and then either download an app or watch a video. So far,  so good. Then the video started. My fiancée was not impressed, and her reality check is worth noting. "Why am I standing in a store watching a video of some bleached blonde in oversized sunglasses?"

She was right. It was just a three-minute brand video. Nicely done, but what is the point of giving it to someone in a store? This is not the first time this has happened. In fact, she has gotten used to so many unsatisfying results from my relentless in-store 2D scanning that she gasps when I pull out my phone. In the aisles of Barnes and Noble, a Microsoft Tag was on back of an historical thriller "Stardust" that looked intriguing. Again, it kicked me over to a very attractive trailer -- that wanted to go on for seven minutes. Seven minutes! "Stop that," my fiancée said. "Would you bring a TV to watch in the middle of bookstore?" Worse, am I really going to sit in a bookstore and watch a seven-minute video in order to find out what the book is about?  

In Macy's, she just walks away. "Why don't they give me something I can use here while I am shopping?" Her advice is on-point. "Tell me what goes with this piece of clothing. Show me what else in the line I might like. Why the hell do I want an ad? I am already looking at their clothes." 

I am not sure where it got into marketers' heads that consumers regard video clips as some kind of reward. "Click here to watch a video." Because there isn't a lot of that stuff around? Hurry, before it runs out?     

Which is not to say all public shows of 2D scanning are for naught. ING Direct has a billboard series that features a QR code and pays off the effort with a $25 deposit to a newly opened savings account. The creative in the out-of-home advertising effectively communicates what consumers will get for their time. Likewise a lengthy trailer makes sense on the other end of a QR code when it is exactly what the user expects and it actually tells the viewer something they didn't already know. Loath as I am to use porn as an example, adult video maker Digital Playground started adding codes to its DVD boxes and marketing materials. And in this market, trailers make sense, largely because porn is so bad. The trailer made a necessary product point that this porn studio was trying to restore story and scripting to the genre. Obviously this is a trailer experience you would have to activate carefully, but I think that expectation is built into the genre.  

My point is not that 2D codes are futile. Far from it. But they are a platform that ordinarily communicates little to the consumer up front and is going to be held accountable as a platform by consumers for what gets delivered. In other words, the platform as a whole is poorly served by pointless executions. In scores of codes I have been scanning in recent weeks, the rendered media simply make no sense to the mobile situation. Granted we are still in the gee-whiz stage of 2D codes, where some people just get a kick out of seeing their phone interact with the physical world this way. But if my handy focus group of one is any indication, audiences will get jaded and wary very quickly over these experiences if marketers don't work harder at relevance and utility. It won't be too hard to undermine a promising technology by tricking adventurous mobile users into watching just another ad.

And before I finish discussing the simple practical aspects of in-store mobile executions, I am compelled to mention again the persistent drag on all of this.  

"The video went quiet, what happened?" my fiancée says.  

"It is buffering."

Data network performance in large windowless stores sucks, and this always (I mean always) undermines the in-store mobile efforts I keep trying and trying. Retailers who say they want to activate the mobile experience simply cannot forget the most basic technical piece: that it actually has a hope of working.  

Believe me, fixing this will make my world a nicer place.  

"Buffering?" she asks now in total disbelief. "We are sitting in a store watching a phone in order to wait for an ad to buffer? You need to think about your life."

15 comments about "Down the QR Code Rabbit Hole".
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  1. Steve Ellwanger from Marketing Daily, April 14, 2011 at 2:24 p.m.

    LOL! Great column.

  2. Brian Asner from Upshot, April 14, 2011 at 2:24 p.m.

    I agree that QR/2D codes are only as effective as the content they deliver, and plenty of marketers use this medium in ineffective ways. Then again, the same could be said about everything from social media to out-of-home to promotions - the end content needs to be compelling and engaging, or else you're just creating clutter. (Interestingly, no one questions the effectiveness of these latter tactics when they encounter poor executions - there's still some discrimination against digital technologies.)

    Our agency recently created an infographic on barcode marketing, and it covers the growth of the category, demographics of users, and the types of codes that marketers have been using. It's available for free at I think it would help address some of the concerns brought up in this article.

  3. Gil Velasquez from Gilberto Velasquez & Associates Inc., April 14, 2011 at 2:39 p.m.

    Correct on all counts - most of them are garbage. I was impressed, however, with the Microsoft Tags SAMSUNG uses for their high end printers. They actual give relevant information such as ink cartridge types, pricing on ink, what type of USB connection is used, and what platforms / OS will the printer work with. Sadly, this was the first tag I ever used on my smartphone and was immediately spoiled. It has been all downhill from there.

  4. Drew Mehl from Binary Pulse Technology Marketing, April 14, 2011 at 3:03 p.m.

    Great post, Steve. A lot of talk about QR codes now, but we have to acknowledge the platform is still in its infancy. Utility and value of the content delivered via the medium will help drive adoption. Fueling awareness of that need is always important. Good job.

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, April 14, 2011 at 3:09 p.m.

    Electronics are not clothes and accessories as such and are sold differently. You want someone to buy something? It will be bought if it is the right price and the right fit. Now let's talk for a moment about the other shoppers shooed away by someone's incessant QR checking and getting in the way, listening to stuff they don't want to creating a lot of noise women from which most are trying to escape by shopping including taking up time and space of any salesperson who, if you can find, to help you.

  6. Joe Gruchacz from Goodby Silverstein & Partners, April 14, 2011 at 3:29 p.m.

    Such a great column. I'm left wondering why it's taken so long for marketers to get the hang of QR codes. This is not shiny new tech. They've been around for a while. If anything, I would say it's due to smartphone adoption finally catching up to allow meaningful interaction rates. As a media strategist I've been cringing at the amount of QR codes I encounter in transit advertising, specifically on the subway. One of the advantages of QR codes is the instant gratification (when paired with something relevant). Why would I scan something on the train, hoping to remember to visit it later?

  7. Jonathan Thaler from When I'm Mobile, April 14, 2011 at 4:06 p.m.

    It's as if Steve Smith is inside my head; couldn't have written this better myself; in fact, I wrote an aricle in a very similar vein not long ago:

    Steve: would love to chat at your pleasure.

    Thanks for the great article!!

  8. Stephen Rowe, April 15, 2011 at 8:21 a.m.

    Great article Steve. You can say the same about social media, blogs and any number of other forms of communication. The reality is that most marketers just do not understand that different mediums stand in different locations and need to have different messages delivered in different ways. It was much easier when it was just print, radio and television.

  9. Chris Vinson from Vinson Advertising, April 15, 2011 at 2:01 p.m.

    Nicely written!

  10. Julie Martin from, April 15, 2011 at 3:51 p.m.

    Well put...So many folks jumped on the QR code bandwagon but failed to get the sheet music before getting on board. We'll keep trying to educate:-) I have clients who wanted to put QR codes on the home page of their websites -- that linked to their websites. Thanks again for recounting your experience. A good read.

  11. Melissa Petersen from Gold Mine Mobile, April 19, 2011 at 11:36 p.m.

    I love this post! So funny, and well written..... I would love to talk with you all about a QR code that I am a reseller for, that actually does something relevent! It is a QR code that is branded for your business and is an app. for your phone. You scan the code on any of your business marketing material, and it takes you to a branded app that is totally customizable to your business. One of the many great features about this QR code is, it can be changed and edited at anytime by you! It is not a code that only takes you to one place, like a website, youtube video, etc. It is even able to have a lead capturing feature! It gives you many options and can be changed and re-used! It is very affordable and designed for the small to medium sized business owner who would otherwise not be able to afford to offer this kind of technology. Please email me with any questions. Or send me a message on Linkedin. Melissa:

  12. Jose Borrell, April 20, 2011 at 12:28 p.m.

    Steve is right!!! To much wondering around QR's. But beware!!! Same thing happened with .com's, blogs or even Facebook at the very beginning. Stay tuned QR Codes are comming rapidly to a city near you!!!!

  13. Earl Weldon from Earl Weldon Design, Printing & Promotion, April 21, 2011 at 4:39 p.m.

    There WILL always be a segment of the population that loves and follows every new technology like a new toy. ... but then there's the rest of us! I think of Jeff Goldbloom's quote in Juraissic Park ... "You got so excited to think that you COULD, that you never stopped to consider whether or not you SHOULD!"

    I think the QR or 2D code HAS to have a good way and a good reason to tie in! "Pay it off," as we say in the ad biz. Make it make sense and the promotion will be more successful. ... Not just doing it to do it.

  14. Zach Lagreca from Zoove, April 26, 2011 at 7:16 p.m.

    Great article, gave me a good laugh. I love QR codes too, but have seen the same issue with a lot of people. Too many 2D scanning apps jostling now for acceptance. I got lost trying to find the right mobile app on my cell. StarStar Numbers work out of the box, on every mobile phone, without any additional software, or scanning. It's just a simple call. And as a StarStar Number is so memorable, it's great for viral word-of-mouth. Try calling **ESPN, for example, you hear ESPN's message and are sent a link to download a fantasy baseball app. It's interactive, simple to remember, and fun. I even told my friends to call it: I'm trying to figure out how to do that with a 2D bar code and a text campaign I just saw with the short code and the keyword. Or was it the keyword and short code. Arggh!

  15. Jonathan Madnick from Mobile Ecosystems DC, June 4, 2011 at 12:22 a.m.

    If I can pull out my iphone and take a picture, then my phone should recognize, natively, that there is a QR code in the picture, so a pop up should ask me if I want to use the QR code to navigate. If I have to start an app or get an app, forget it.
    **, short code, all work without much hassle. If it says 'text STILETTOS to 74555', I get it. If it says 'call **ESPN', I get it too.
    But remember we are talking about a phone here. The basic and universal functions are make a call and send a text TO A PHONE NUMBER. In the US, a ten digit phone number, no more, no less. So let me respond to 'text STILETTOS to 212-555-1212' or 'call 212-555-1212 for info.'
    Don't make it hard for me.

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