The topic of QR codes came up at a recent workshop I attended. Some of the participants suggested that implementing campaigns with QR codes suggested it improved perceptions that the brand was ‘cutting edge’ even if the QR code was hardly ever used. The others laughed at lack of utility QR codes and how useless they are.
Both are wrong.
QR codes have unfairly been derided in the comms world. They were conceived by a Toyota subsidiary for industrial inventory management and have been successfully used to track automobile parts for over a decade. QR codes are neither innovative or useless in their original context, nor are they inherently innovative or useless in a marketing context.
The failure of QR codes in the comms world has been by the marketers, not the technology. A QR code is not a compelling innovation. It’s not an innovation innately suited to advertising strategy. It’s certainly not an innovation likely to generate excitement in and by itself.
It’s a barcode.
There are some great examples of QR codes being effectively implemented and improving the user experience, such as Tesco and the Wealie app. What connects these examples is that the QR codes have been implemented in situations where users are not required to change their behaviour. In South Korea, Tesco has a fake supermarket “shelf and product” interface for mobile shopping, with QR codes attached for the scanning of products to be added to carts. Wealie takes the usual ‘loyalty’ card system and removes the annoying stamp and card system. In these contexts, QR codes actually represent a valuable proposition. Most importantly, the QR code is essentially a mechanism for streamlining an existing behaviour, and not the strategy that underpins the experience itself.
Putting a QR code on outdoor and print ads asks users to change their behaviour. People aren’t used to stopping at a magazine ad, pulling out their phones, scanning a barcode etc. That’s a both an effort and a cognitive behavioural barrier to overcome. Furthermore, early marketing adopters regularly used QR codes to link through Youtube videos in lieu of any other compelling reason to include a QR code (to improve perceptions of brands as innovative). This situation undoubtedly requires more effort, breaking the flow of a behavioural pattern, than makes the “payoff” worthwhile.
Providing access to a website or video isn’t exciting - URLs can do that, and there’s been no significant demand by consumers for a new technology to replace URLs. What can QR do? Take an existing experience and make it better by leveraging that QR can offer – better tracking, more portable, ability to store (lots of) information, quick access to that information etc.
Unfortunately, QR codes now have the stigma of being a low value proposition. They’re a joke, best summarised by this tumblr. Wven a useful, innovative QR campaign has the deck stacked against it thanks to the ghosts of hundreds or poorly conceived earlier QR campaigns. If your campaign does succeed it will be because of the value it adds for the user – not because of the novelty in using QR. And if doesn’t, don’t blame the technology. Or the user.