The Quandary of QR Codes
This is my latest article for The Danish Communication Association. You can read it there, here. Or below. Your call.
The quandary of QR codes is one upon which I spend far too much of my time. To me, they're one of those things that you just know could be really, really good, but just can’t quite get there. So far, they’ve proved to be nothing but a big old techy bandwagon. Bursting on to the digital scene about a year ago, they were full of promise and super-cool-mobile-interaction. And that was it. Never really delivering on the promises they seemed to hold, they slipped away.
Luckily, however, they didn’t go away completely. Instead, it seems as if they might have finally begun to find their niché.
QR codes (Quick Response codes) first came into this world in 1994, and are essentially fancy barcodes - the same as the ones we all know (the vertical lines) but able to contain much, much more data and be read at a much faster speed. Originally used for tracking car parts, they suddenly saw their popularity surge with the introduction of smartphones. Suddenly anyone with a smartphone could download an app, scan the QR code and be taken off to wherever the maker of the code wanted you to go.
Well, you had to download the app, start your camera, line up the code, scan the code, wait for the page/video/whatever to open/load/start only to leave you somewhat deflated at the inevitably unsatisfying result. Even though most smartphones today come with the app preinstalled, the act still demands a fair amount of action from the user, already a clear signal that whatever is in store for the user, better be worth it.
From magazines to posters and from food to places – at some point a QR code has been stamped on everything. Anyone can make them online for free. All you have to do is specify what you want the QR code to lead to, and Bob's your uncle, there it is. From YouTube videos, URLs, downloading, and activating phone functions, all you have to do is scan.
Many people’s first encounter with a QR code was through Google Places. Remember those ads?
These codes took you the place page on Google, where you could read reviews and other useful bits of information – a good use of QR codes. Unfortunately, 99% of QR code use isn’t quite so good. It’s easy to see where things went wrong; it's instant interaction! It takes the user right where you want them to be. Just pop a QR code on your product, and you can send the customer to your website, your Facebook page, your Twitter account, your.....advert? Calvin Klein went a bit QR barmy with his 2010 ad campaign. Billboards displaying large QR codes popped up, which, when scanned, took the user to a 40 second commercial with various models and underwear in it. You scanned the one advert to be taken to another advert. Huh. QR codes might have seemed like a marketing dream, but they’re not. Using them to direct consumers to more advertising or to your website (which is probably printed on the ad anyway) isn't going to work. They might represent a call to action but the user has to perceive value in it. Not just another advert. They’re not just another advertising channel, but what they can be is a very effective way of communicating and giving consumers that little bit extra.
Over the past few months, I’ve noticed more and more good examples popping up. Businesses and marketing companies are starting to get it, and are offering their present and potential customers something worthwhile, in a clear, explanatory way. From campaigns where a scan results in a coupon, digital cinema tickets, digital boarding passes to Tesco’s shopping on the way home they all either offer the consumer something for free, or make lives easier (not to mention saving paper). My favourite example in Denmark is in Kino’s magazine. Some of the film reviews have a QR code by them, which takes you to the trailer online. What’s more, it tells me how to scan the code, and what will happen once I do, thereby letting me see the value in it – an important factor seeing as how many people have either never used one, or have only had a negative experience with them.
The biggest problem for the little square codes is that they’ve just not managed to quite break through to the masses.
Comscore recently released their findings of their June 2011 survey, and found that just 14 million mobile users in the US have scanned a QR code. It sounds a lot until you realise that the number represents just 6.2% of smartphone users. Most people scan at home, in magazines and newspapers – more than packaging, posters, business cards, flyers and storefronts.
People have even begun to give up on them – even Google, once the proud advocate of QR codes, has recently waved goodbye to our four cornered friends due to NFC (near field communication – by simply having your phone near something, it will be able to pick up information – in a nutshell). Understandable, but just because Google have changed their tactics doesn’t mean they’re history.
I remain positive – for now. As the push for a paperless society continues, and as smartphones become more embedded in every day lives (read; when my Mum gets one. And can use it), such technology will become second nature, just as URLs and apps are commonplace today. As with any new media, it just has to be understood and used correctly. It’s about communication, and as usual, no one is going to like it if it’s just advertising or websites thrown out with absolutely no obvious value.
Some simple advice would be;
- Depending on your target audience, consumers need to be told how to scan the code. It doesn’t take much space.
- In all cases, tell the consumer what will happen. What is in it for them? Why should they take the time to scan the code?
- Make the end result worthwhile. Give directions, a free download, a coupon, a voucher, instructions, tips, recipes – things that can be used, and have value.
- Remember that if SMS can be used instead – use it. No one wants to fill out a form online after scanning a code when sending an SMS can do the same thing much, much faster