How Not to Dig a QR Rabbit Hole

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?



13 comments about "How Not to Dig a QR Rabbit Hole".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Andre Szykier from maps capital management, June 14, 2011 at 5:28 p.m.

    The QR dilemma is real today but should become easy to use mobile device link mechanism.
    Ideally, the code has a small physical footprint with a relatively large capacity for information to extract on the client side without requiring a server event.

    When the QR image is part of a product design or placement at point of purchase, its value can be increased by location based promotion, price discounts, sweepstakes and promotions and campaign related promotion.

    Encrypted QR codes are a perfect answer for anti-counterfeit applications with pharmaceuticals, traceability in perishable foods, high value consumer goods and social media exchanges.

    NFC is a defacto emerging standard once more devices are enabled on the chip level (market traction within 12 months) but next applications will focus on opt-in marketing as well as mobile payment solutions.

    QR codes will coexist with NFC no doubt.

  2. Dean Collins from Cognation Inc, June 14, 2011 at 5:46 p.m.

    @Andre - encrypted qr codes such thing exists.

    @Steve.....having ripped into you in the comments in previous QR related articles.....this article made me job here is done.

    having said that....i agree most interaction experiences are lackluster and poorly implemented. lots of room for improvement.

  3. Mark Wenzowski from CELLGHOST Mobile, June 14, 2011 at 5:46 p.m.

    I couldn't agree more with Mr. Wehr's perspective and approach to QR code marketing, but i believe there are still issues that need to be addressed before QR codes become mainstream.

    In order for QR codes to gain mass appeal, I believe there are a few X-factors that need to happen.

    1. Choose one format and eliminate the fight for market share. Microsoft tags, Jag Tags, EZ codes (Scanbuy), even at&t. These companies, as well as a handful more, all have proprietary codes that require the consumer to download their company's app in order to scan them. Grab a People Magazine off the shelf, browse through it, and you will see exactly what I mean. It's a scattered mess of call to actions that essentially require the consumer to perform the same action, but ask that you do this with 4 or more different applications. Absolutely ridiculous! Stop confusing the consumer. It's hard enough getting the consumer to recognize 2d codes. The struggle to capture market share is affecting the industry as a whole. If we were to simply adopt QR codes as the primary format, there would be less clutter and more clarity for marketers and consumers alike.

    2. Education, education, education. This applies to the marketers down to the consumer. Too many times, I have seen an ad with a 2d bar code call to action with no instructions on what it is or how to use it. Simple instructions for scanning the bar code should ALWAYS be included in the ad. ..ALWAYS

    3. Better marketing. Piggybacking on Mr. Wehr's approach, a 2d bar code is simply an additional entry point. The same way SMS, IVR, or an online capture form would be used to send the consumer to a destination. The destination point is the CRITICAL component. Where and what are you leading the consumer to? Is it relevant to the ad? Does it hold value? Is the content optimized to fit on all mobile device screens? And so on.

    Looking at the big picture, these are issues that I feel should be addressed, but  shouldn't affect the momentum of 2d bar code implementation and acceptance in this country. Look at the stats, look at the usage, and read the case studies. All arrows point up. Utilizing 2d bar code technology is cost effective, its gaining poularity, and it's generating results when done properly. Although bar code capabilities are only available to those with smart phones, pay attention to the trends. In the not so distant future, most end users will be carrying a smart phone in their hands. It is inevitable, and it's time to eliminate the clutter  (i.e. snap a photo and send it in via email). I understand that you are able to reach more users due to the lack of smartphones currently in customers hands, but if that's the case, use SMS as your call to action. It has the widest reach, and can be accompanied next to a QR code as an additional option for entry.

    Lose the clutter, educate the marketer and the consumer, and focus on the word MARKETING in mobile marketing. BOOM! You've got a winner. Until then, we are simply witnessing the beginning of  an emerging trend that will become another weapon in mobile marketing's arsenal.

  4. aram kovach, June 14, 2011 at 6:14 p.m.

    Mobius is the first mobile marketing solution that works with true image recognition and it works across all carriers and all cell phones globally without a download or an app. and yes its all about you and your brand not the technology nor the abstraction of a QR code.

  5. Eddie Cohen from Six Degrees Counterfeit Prevention, LLC., June 14, 2011 at 7:09 p.m.

    @Mr. Szykier - good points

    @Mr. Collins - "encrypted qr such thing exists." Care to place a wager on that? ;)

  6. Eddie Cohen from Six Degrees Counterfeit Prevention, LLC., June 14, 2011 at 7:10 p.m.

    @Mr. Smith - thanks for the article. Quite informative.

  7. Andre Szykier from maps capital management, June 14, 2011 at 7:25 p.m.

    re @Dean Collins: "encrypted qr codes such thing exists. "

    Encrypted QR codes are alive and well, multiplying like rabbits. Seen them, used them, etc... no BS
    And they won't run down the rabbit hole, for sure.
    As for placing bets, I leave that to gamblers where the house always wins in the long run

  8. Dean Collins from Cognation Inc, June 14, 2011 at 7:28 p.m.

    @Eddie....sure considering this is the current state of your website.

    This page is being updated. Please check back again later. Thank you.

  9. Dean Collins from Cognation Inc, June 14, 2011 at 7:29 p.m.

    @Andre...well seeign you are so confident feel free to enlighten us on something online that we can read about your work

    still calling BS

  10. Andre Szykier from maps capital management, June 14, 2011 at 7:30 p.m.

    As for mobius, nice but cannot be personalized since the image is common to all who scan. QR codes can be personalized as they are now being trialed in international id cards

    Mobius should license it to Facebook to scan images and match them to the FBI sexual offender database. That would be a practical application.

  11. Andre Szykier from maps capital management, June 14, 2011 at 7:36 p.m.

    Spoken like an Aussie..all sh#t

    If you want to do character assassination, be my guest, as this technology will appear shortly, then you can drown yourself in Foster's at the Irish Pub by Grand Central.
    BTW, looked at your are a small time player.. Sorry but that's the real truth

  12. Eddie Cohen from Six Degrees Counterfeit Prevention, LLC., June 14, 2011 at 7:36 p.m.

    @Mr. Collins - don't let my unfinished site fool you! I will be happy to take your money. You know how to reach me.

  13. Mike Digioia from Zoove, Inc., June 15, 2011 at 1:07 p.m.

    The complexity and difficulty of the QR code has always been its major disadvantage: don’t have the right app, phone’s camera isn’t good enough, not sure how it works, etc. Try to educate the consumer all you want, but most people are creatures of habit. An alternative is StarStar Numbers (from Zoove), which let consumers instantly connect to brands through the universal mobile phone dial-pad, something anyone with a phone already knows how to use. Plus, they’re directly connected with a brand, **SUZUKI (**789854) for example, so they’re easy to remember. Simple and easy to use wins out over a learning curve every time. Link to a recent story is below:

Next story loading loading..