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QR Codes: the new shiny object

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Many marketers overuse a mobile marketing element that most smartphone users are apathetic about

A June 20 story on Geekosystem caught a Google search’s attention this morning. A British family farm apparently adorned a cow (which has the un-bovine name of Lady Shamrock) with a “QR code” in an attempt to drive people to their Dairy Farming website as Ms. Shamrock is taken on tour.

Lady Shamrock adorned with her QR Code

For the non-marketers and non-techies in the audience, QR (quick response) codes are those dot-matrix thing-a-ma-jigs you’ve been seeing on everything from newspapers to advertising posters to business cards to, um, cows.

Smartphone users are supposed to scan the codes, which will then open their phones’ Internet browsers to a specific page. The thing is, the application that is needed to scan the squigglies does not come with any smartphone; not an iPhone, not a Blackberry, nor an Android. The user needs to seek out, download and install a QR reader app.

I’ve seen them on subways in Washington DC, New York and Toronto (deep in the bowels of the Earth far from any wireless signal) and billboards several hundred feet off the highway. Yup, I’m going to try to scan a far-off billboard with my Blackberry across a pasture while doing 70 MPH or in bumper to bumper urban traffic! That’s not dangerous at all, right? Marketers have even stuck them on ads in in-flight magazines (where you can’t use your smartphone, as Alec Baldwin recently discovered) and in emails. Why, oh why, would you fire up your smartphone, activate the app, take a picture of an email on your computer screen, and then wait for it to load the website on the phone, when you can just click on the URL link in the email? Duh. Extremely small splotches have been spotted on bananas, too. Huh?

Here’s the rub: most people really don’t care about them. In a survey at 24 university campuses in the US, only 21.5% of students could scan the thing when asked. Their reasons for not using them:

  • I thought taking a picture would scan it
  • I didn’t want to download the app
  • I tried but gave up
  • It takes too long.

So, why write this article?  Because many marketers and business owners or CEOs have fallen in love with the little squares filled with dots. Often, businesses think this is a good tactic to attract prospective customers to their home pages. That is usually disastrous. A prospect who scans a code is wanting information on the specific product or discount mentioned in the ad, not to start fishing around on a home page for a link to a page buried deep in the site. But, most QR codes do not take users to such a page. Another crime is sending them to a non-mobile website. QR codes are meant for mobile phones, so the web page it links to must be mobile optimized: no Flash, not as wide as a football field (i.e. no or minimal scrolling), no or minimal Java, no mega graphics. Most companies, organizations and nonprofits drop the ball here.

QR codes have largely failed because the majority of users will abandon them just after one bad experience. And they are not magic marketing bullets nor Band-Aids. If a business or organization does not have the web infrastructure in place to support the code’s use, then white space on your marketing communications elements is a much better option. It’s been proven that users will abandon a site for a competitor’s if the experience is not as promised or expected.

A relevant post from CNN: “Why QR codes aren’t catching on

Another more industry-focused piece: “QR Codes Prove To Be A Curiosity

Use them incorrectly and you and your organization (or your client) will look like idiots, and totally lose the advantage of using them in the first place.

We are all better served by creating excellent web properties that are easily searched and accessible via mobile than relying on such add-ons. The fundamentals need to be in place.

QR Codes are just a “bright, shiny object” with limited usability. More like Pet Rock and Mood Ring fads than effective marketing element (those under 35 may need to Google those 1970s references!).

One last thing: there’s nothing like destroying the branding experience of 100% of your prospects who see your ad or marketing communications via a big blotchy square somewhere on it that the vast majority of them don’t care whatsoever about.

UPDATE April 8, 2013: From AdAge’s B. L. Ochman, an early proponent of QR codes: QR Codes Are Dead, Trampled by Easier-to-Use Apps.” Also, Business Insider has a collection of 15 Of The Worst QR Code Fails Of All Time.

UPDATE April 29, 2013: Canada’s Tim Hortons coffee shop chain, which also has a presence in the US Northeast, followed up its arguably marketing genius “Roll Up The Rim” promotion with a “win free coffee for a year” contest. The problem: the entry forms stacked next to cash registers include a huge QR code and, at first glance, have no alternative method of entering. There is an entirely missable “telltimhortons.com” website listed in small print on the bottom of the sheet, but it’s not readily apparent that it’s related to the contest. In fact, the “contest” is actually a survey that collects personal information before the contest can be entered, but that is not apparent, either. Even so, there’s nothing like excluding a huge percentage (majority?) of loyal customers from entering a contest by using technology everyone can’t easily use or access and has proved to be not very effective.  On a related note, many marketers are now falling off the QR code bandwagon: Mobile Marketer asks “Are QR codes losing their magnetism?”

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  1. June 29th, 2012 at 12:54 | #1

    Great article. And people continue to do it. Here’s a fresh example:
    http://cbsoutdoor.ca/en/newsdetail/230
    As CBS Outdoor explains, this outdoor campaign will generate 54 million audience impressions. However, all of these impressions are based on vehicular traffic. As Jonathan points out, a car is not the easiest or safest place to snap a QR code from. Or to watch a 2-minute video. Maybe this campaign is intended for pedestrians?

    Mike,
    Thanks for the comment. BMW’s agency says “CBS Outdoor will have delivered 54 million impressions for this BMW campaign” in Vancouver, Canada alone. This only goes to show how some agencies massage their numbers, often to the ridiculous. An “impression” is close to worthless. Simply passing by the thing in your car without looking at it is a selling point for CBS Outdoor, apparently.
    The real proof in the pudding will be if 54 million people will access the BMW site via their smartphones after scanning. Yeah, good luck there. And in your linked photo supplied by CBS, people would have to drive onto the sidewalk and run over the folks waiting for their bus to scan the blotch.
    Silly Season continues. – JB

  2. June 29th, 2012 at 13:44 | #2

    Here’s another interesting statistic. Of the people driving by who actually look at an outdoor board, the average time spent doing so is reportedly 0.1 seconds. But I’m not here to diss the outdoor industry. There are ways to use and to misuse the medium. Let’s hope BMW is treating the QR code as secondary to the branding message because the vast majority of QR code clicks will be coming from BMW, agency and CBS employees.

    I have used Outdoor throughout my career, but in a very targeted fashion. But, anecdotally, I spent 3 days this week travelling via airports and automobile, and can recall only a single billboard or display ad, although I likely passed by hundreds or thousands: one that advertised a Quizno’s off the Interstate, which had clear info that it was just off the road and around the corner. That was relevant, as I had a coupon in my pocket, and I was hungry. -JB

  3. July 6th, 2012 at 17:19 | #3

    A few comments from industry groups on LinkedIn where this column was discussed:

    AMADC (American Marketing Association DC Chapter):
    “Enjoyed this! More proof that marketing strategy comes first, not ‘shiny objects'”. – Susan M.

    TOMarketing (Toronto Marketing):

    “Thank you for the great critique. Too often marketers and their agencies get caught up in the next big thing without thinking it through.” – Mike M.

    “Thank you for that article, I have been pointing the same thing out to my friends in their intended application vs the actual use. Its like putting a scratch and sniff sticker at the bottom of a pool.” – Shane M.

    “Nice article. While I agree that many companies are becoming too obsessed with placing QR codes everywhere, they can add an additional level of depth to marketing materials when used properly. Or in the case of the cow, can add marketing power just by being there in the first place.” – Marc G.

    “I produce and manage expositions both trade and consumer. QR codes are an excellent way for exhibitors to get their message out to thousands of buyers without printing brochures that are put in a show bag and sit in a corner until they are trashed. QR Codes are a sustainable means of communication. Thoughts?” – Jai C… My response: “Jai, your example is one with a captive audience, and the B2B audience is likely more tech-smart than the average consumer, who is, incidently, the most common smartphone user. So, yes, your use of them in the B2B space — and since you likely have no heifers involved — is probably one of the very few valid ones. I would be interested in the disparity of QR lead data and dollars generated, which I’m guessing would be quite disproportionate, between your B2B and consumer events.”

  4. August 15th, 2012 at 12:56 | #4

    It looks like nonprofits and charities have contracted QRCode-itis. This from Grizzard Communications in Atlanta:
    “What’s with all the charities using QR codes?”

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