What I Said at SXSW About QR Codes

David Wachs Cellit EprizeThis piece is written by David Wachs, SVP Mobile/GM Cellit: ePrize Mobile Solutions. You can read more by David at the Cellit blog or find him at Twitter @cellit.

I just got back from a whirlwind weekend at SXSW. On top of hearing some excellent speakers and meeting tons of fantastic, energetic interactive marketers, I also had the opportunity to speak on the topic of leveraging QR codes effectively. I was amazed at the turnout; with a line out the door and around the hotel, clearly this is a topic of interest.

This talk was based on a blog post I wrote a year ago on cellit.com, entitled “11 Reasons QR Codes Suck.” 

In a nutshell, they suck because they’re typically not used effectively. I thought I’d share this article with you, then tell you how to leverage this new technology appropriately.

By now you’ve seen them everywhere: little squares made up of various black and white boxes. You see them on bus shelters, inside mass transit, or in your dentist's office. When they initially started popping up, you probably wondered, “What the heck is this?”

Now, these 2D bar codes, often called a “QR code” or a “tag,” are everywhere. When you see a QR code (and actually know what it is) you can download an app on your phone, take a picture of the code and “voila!” you get content. Because they are the newest tool in the interactive marketer’s toolbox, they are showing up everywhere, but they're not being used in the right ways.

Let's count down:
The Top 11 Ways QR Codes Suck.

11. QR Codes make receiving simple content very difficult
QR codes are nothing more than a URL encoded in a bar code format. However, to access the URL, the user must download and install a bar code reader, open the reader, take a clear picture of the code, wait for the phone to process the code (which takes 3-5 seconds on my iPhone 4) and then display the content.

In my experience with QR codes, it usually takes me 2 or 3 attempts at taking a photo before the phone recognizes it (if at all). Obstructions, fog, movement, awkward or distant placement (such as on billboards) all limit their ability to be read. Is your target audience going to jump through these hoops?

10. QR codes lack strong trackability compared to text messaging
As mentioned above, a QR code is nothing more than a URL encoded in a very geeky format. As such, the only collectable information is the same information you get from a web hit, which would include URL hit, user agent (in this case, the phone type, but for a desktop environment, it would be the browser of the computer), and time of day of web hit.

With a text messaging program, you also get the most valuable information out there: the user’s cell phone number!

9. QR Codes lack follow-up
Building on point 10 above, without the phone number, it’s impossible to easily follow up with a user. If the same request had been initiated with text messaging, the brand could send a message at a later date to the user (if the user opts in, typically by replying “yes” to a request to opt in).

To accomplish the same result via 2D bar code, the user would need to fill out a web form, which is more time consuming and will deter the user.

8. QR codes require mobile devices to stop being mobile
When taking a picture of a QR code you must stand still. In today’s “on the go” world, this might be a very unrealistic thing to ask. For example, at O’Hare airport in Chicago, there was a QR code campaign on the doors that exit the airport. The advertiser wants you to stop dragging your bags out of the airport and take a picture of the QR code. (Oh, by the way, you’ll be blocking the exit to the airport by doing so and I can nearly guarantee you’ll be run over by 500 travelers that don’t find QR codes nearly as interesting as you do).

Had the company instead run a “text for info” campaign, the user could simply remember to “text WORD to 12345” and do so in the boring cab ride home. (The user would have received the exact same information, and the brand would have had the added benefit of capturing the user’s cell phone number.) Alternatively, the advert could simply say “visit URL on your phone” which would still keep the line moving at the airport.

The same is true for billboards. Is this a scary placement or what?

7. QR Codes can’t go viral
Cellit clients have had several text message campaigns go viral. That is, word got out on a campaign, and before we knew it, people were blogging, posting and tweeting to text “XYZ to 12345” for a great deal. This simply cannot occur with QR codes. You can only interact with the QR code when you’re standing in front of it. 

As a counterpoint, however, this might be the desired effect. If you’re running a scavenger hunt or contest, where you want to guarantee the user is in a specific location or viewing a specific ad, then using a QR code might make sense.

6. QR Codes limit brand association
With text messaging campaigns, or even simple advertisement of a mobile web site, the brand is included in the message. e.g., text BRAND to 12345 or visit m.brand.com. Furthermore, when the consumer types in m.brand.com or texts BRAND to 12345, the very act of typing in the brand’s name reinforces recall in the mind of the consumer.

With QR codes, limited brand association exists.  While it is now possible to include a company logo in the center of a QR code, or incorporate the QR code in a larger ad in an artistic way, I would argue there is greater brand association through the act of typing in the name (either in a text message or in a URL) than snapping a picture of a QR code.

5. QR Codes only work on smart phones with cameras
46% of U.S. adults owned a smartphone in February 2012, an increase of 11 percentage points over the 35% who owned a smartphone in May 2011, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.

However, with less than half of the U.S. owning a smart phone, it's not clear why a marketer would opt out of communicating with a larger demographic via text or simply mentioning a mobile URL. With text-based campaigns, Cellit can deliver unique URLs and track their open rate. If the URL is not opened, our system falls back to delivering information via text only. There is no fall back for QR Codes.

4. QR Codes take up a lot of space.
Unlike a URL or even “text WORD to 12345,” QR Codes, to be effective, must take up a large portion of a billboard or other outdoor displayQR codes can be much smaller for in-book pieces in magazines and in-store shelf liners.

3. There is no standard for 2D Bar Codes
While PDF 417 (the “QR Code”) is the dominant format for 2D bar codes, other formats also exist, such as the Microsoft Tag or the Scanlife format. These varying formats create confusion, and often require the user to have multiple scanning apps downloaded on their phone to participate in 2D bar code campaigns.

2. You can’t use QR Codes in television or radio.
Obviously, you can’t use QR codes in radio, but you also can’t practically use them on television. You would need to leave the bar code on screen for a substantial amount of time (enough time for the user to get out their phone, locate the app on their phone if it exists, or download it if it doesn’t), run the app, focus on the bar code and snap a picture. This could easily take 45 seconds or longer to occur.

One of the benefits of mobile campaigns is the ability to judge the relative effectiveness of media by tagging various ads with different keywords. If you can’t measure radio and television, your usage is substantially limited.

1. Most people still don’t know what QR codes are!
According to a March 2011 survey by Simpson Carpenter, 64% of the population doesn’t even know what a QR code is!  Recently, I was flying back to Chicago and had the privilege of sitting next to two 22-year-old women. A marketer would imagine that these women (who grew up with cell phones practically since birth) would be able to identify and use a QR code.

However, when I showed them a few on some business cards I had collected at an interactive marketing event, neither woman had the faintest clue what they were or what to do with them. These women are not alone. In fact, nearly every person I know who does not work in marketing or for a cell phone technology company has no idea what these codes mean. On the flip side, text messaging has a penetration rate approaching 80%.

The Good: On the flip side…

Some marketers have found excellent uses for QR codes and we have built some successful QR code campaigns with clients as well. In fact, according to Insight Express, January 2012, 30% of smartphone holiday shoppers said they scanned a barcode while in store. People are using them when the codes are used at the right place and time, so brands shouldn't abandon them.

Here are a few tips for using them the right way.

  • Attain mass reach: If using on bus shelters, in mass transit, etc., couple it with an SMS or a URL option, so you can reach the majority of the population and track which channel is most successful for you.
  • Use for convenience: We've seen people grocery shopping via QR code in other countries by scanning virtual items on store shelves while waiting for the subway, only to have their order waiting for them at the store when they reach their destination. Putting QR codes to use in this way drives purchase for the store, and gives shoppers ultimate convenience.
  • Guarantee presence: As mentioned in point 7, including a QR code in an ad is a great way to guarantee the user looked at the ad, as this “scan” cannot go viral.  This works great as a way to check in at locations and events, participate in scavenger hunts, or validate offer availability through guaranteeing in-store attendance.

Remember, it's great to try different marketing approaches and see what works with your audience for each unique program. Look at usage behavior, and most importantly put yourself in the shoes of your audience.

Make sure your content is not only impactful, but reaches the most people and the success is trackable for you.