How Not to Use QR Codes for Advertising

by Kiersten Bonifant – Evolve Web Designer

Current opinions of QR Codes tend to fall in one of three categories; “I love them!”, “I hate them!” or “What the #@&% is a QR Code?” Since that last group exists, and is larger than you may think, lets first get to the bottom of what a QR Code really is.

Example QR Code

A QR Code is a two-dimensional symbol that can be scanned using a smartphone with the appropriate application. A quick search in any smartphone’s app store for “qr code scanner” will yield seemingly endless results, most of which are free to download. After scanning with such a tool, the user is then delivered to a website, promotion, contest, etc. via their phone’s web browser. 

While the hype for QR Codes in the U.S. has begun only in the past couple of years, they were actually first created in 1994 by Japanese corporation Denso Wave, a subsidiary of Toyota, to help track auto parts. The use of QR Codes for marketing purposes on a large, public scale didn’t come until 2002, and also took place in Japan. Providers of mobile and handheld technology at the time joined forces to create a single industry standard for accessing QR Codes. As a result, QR codes are now easily recognized by 90 percent of mobile users in Japan and accessed by more than 50 percent of them. 

The same cannot be said for Americans. According to an August 2011 online survey from strategic marketing firm Russell Herder, 72 percent of consumers say they have seen a QR Code, but nearly 33 percent of them don’t know what it is. Furthermore, only 31 percent of people who have scanned QR Codes say the end result was worth their time. Before we dive in to why some of these numbers are so low, let’s take a look at some of the benefits of using QR Codes for marketing.

Benefits of QR Codes

1. Speed

The beauty of a QR Code is that with one quick scan, a consumer is instantly, (pending the speed of his or her wireless connection), sent to a specific destination on the web relating to that company or product. For example, while flipping through a magazine, a quick scan of a QR Code from your favorite brand could deliver coupons and savings, without having to type a single character.

2. Additional Space

In the marketing world, ad space costs big bucks. By simply adding a small QR Code to a 2×2” newspaper ad, and connecting that code to a mobile web page about the product or promotion, a company can save plenty of advertising dollars while bridging the gap between print and digital media.

3. Trackability

One of the greatest benefits of QR Codes is the ability to track users who scan the code. For example, if a promotional web page can be reached by either scanning a QR Code in a print ad or by clicking a link in an email, the analytics of that page combined with QR Code tracking capabilities will show the exact number of users who end up on your website as a direct result of seeing your print ad.

4. Cheap/Free

When Denso Wave created the first QR Codes, it made an interesting and purposeful decision to not exercise its patent rights. This allowed the technology to remain publicly available, leading to countless websites today that let users create QR Codes for no cost. Just sign up, hit “create” and plug in your url. Voila! 

Disadvantages of QR Codes

1. Speed

Yes, you read that correctly. A common argument from both sides is the speed of use. While tech savvy users feel that it takes no time at all to access a QR Code, those who aren’t as familiar with them argue that it takes too many steps to scan one: pull out your phone, launch your QR Code Scanner app, (if you already have one), get the QR Code in focus, scan it, then wait for the content to load. Those against QR Codes often argue that they’d rather just type in a url.

2. Consumer Understanding

It’s possible that you are in the “What the &%$# is a QR Code?” group. This group creates a problem for many marketers trying out the technology. According to a 2011 study from comScore, 14 million Americans who own mobile devices have interacted with QR Codes. While that sounds like a huge number, it’s actually less than five percent of the American consumer market. Not until users and marketers both understand what they are and how to effectively use them, will QR Codes become particularly advantageous.

3. Relying on Consumer Knowledge & Technology

QR Codes aren’t valuable unless they are scanned. When using a QR Code as a marketing tool, you are relying on the consumer to understand what the code is and know how to interact with it. On top of that, they need to be part of the 55% of American adults who own smartphones, as well as have a scanning app. Using QR codes eliminates nearly half of the population, so if marketers don’t have their target market in mind at all times, they risk leaving out a large number of consumers. 

4. Visual Eye Sore

Unless your company sells “Square-Shaped Whatnots,”, QR Codes probably don’t fit in well with your marketing pieces. The nature of the technology does not quite lend itself to pleasing visuals. And while they are very recognizable because of this, it makes them very hard to effectively work with. Advocates will argue that there are sites out there that allow you to customize your QR Code, but these often result in overdone, cheesy designs that actually further hinder the process.

With opinions varying widely, the best way to decide if you want to use QR Codes for marketing purposes, or interact with them as consumers, is to look at a few do’s and don’ts.

Common Mistakes and What to Do Instead

Mistake #1: Not optimizing for mobile

If I had to discuss just one slipup to avoid, it would be the all-too-common mistake of linking a QR Code to a website that is not optimized to be viewed on a mobile device. Unfortunately, this is an extremely common error in the world of QR Codes. It inevitably leaves users confused and frustrated.

SOLUTION: Link to a mobile friendly site.

Since the only way for a user to interact with a QR Code is to use his or her smartphone, it is absolutely necessary that the content they are lead to is formatted for their mobile device. This will facilitate the simplified and easy user experience that QR Codes set out to achieve in the first place.

Mistake #2: Not promoting unique or valuable content

Far too often, QR Codes link straight to a company’s full website, to their Facebook page, or some other piece of reused content that could be easily seen or found otherwise. Only 31% of people who have scanned multiple QR Codes said the end result was worth their time.

SOLUTION: Give them a reason to scan.

When creating content to be accessed through a QR Code, make sure that it is of value to your user. Better yet, give them a reason to scan in the first place. For example, let them know that a coupon, special offer or contest awaits them when they scan. This 2011 survey of smartphone users, (those who have scanned QR Codes as well as those who have not), shows that the top incentive for scanning is the promise of receiving a coupon or discount.

Mistake #3: Difficult-to-Scan Codes

Don’t laugh. This is a real problem. A quick search on the web for “qr code fails” or a look at this tongue-in-cheek blog shows that all too often marketers are putting QR Codes on surfaces and in bizarre locations that leave them completely unable to be scanned. Some make it so small it barely gets seen let alone scanned, while other brands have even made the mistake of placing QR Codes on billboards – Really?

SOLUTION: Test, test, test.

Most importantly, be sure to apply critical thinking to your QR Code marketing plans. This should help you avoid costly mistakes. No matter how it’s implemented, be sure to test your QR Code to ensure that it can be easily scanned. Better yet, go one step further and test it with multiple scanning apps and mobile devices for best results. 

What it All Means

After reviewing so many benefits and disadvantages of QR Codes, as well as learning how to avoid common mistakes, you may still be trying to settle on a solid opinion about this technology. While you ponder your conclusions, I’d like to share my own. First just let me say that I want to like QR Codes. I really do. This concept of bridging the gap between print media and online channels is brilliant, and in many ways, necessary to successful marketing. With that said, QR Codes are just not there yet. Sure, there are the few campaigns that truly make the most of this technology, but the market is far too saturated with poorly executed QR Codes. Not only would we need to develop a large scale initiative to educate the public on how to use these codes, we would need to change the minds of thousands of users who have already scanned and been disappointed by the result. In short, while QR Codes are great in theory, their reputation and misuse precedes them, to a point where I feel that they are more trouble than they’re worth for your next campaign. Feel differently? We’d love to hear your opinion in the comments below.