QR codes are popping up everywhere these days, from store windows to packaging to magazine ads. You’ve probably seen them; they look an awful lot like a cross between a bar code and badly-pixelated artwork from a 1980s video game. They’re black and white with big squares on three of the corners and, like their more primitive counterpart, the UPC barcode, they store encoded information in that mass of glitchy-looking pixels.
More information, in fact, than the short set of numbers that a barcode can represent. Originally designed to help automate car manufacturing, QR codes—the QR stands for “Quick Response”—are now employed by marketers of all stripes to transmit a large block of information in an image, often to a phone.
The general idea is this: You see something that interests you —say, an ad, a sign or a shelf tag in a store—and you take your smartphone and snap a picture of the QR code that’s displayed along with it. Many smartphone apps can read these codes and take action on them. For instance, the Google app on your iPhone can decode a QR code directly and read the information from it (the Google app, along with many others, can also do the same nifty trick with regular barcodes).
It’s pretty cool, and there’s something satisfying about deciphering this clutter of computer-generated code into its real-world output. QR codes are also compact, can be printed just about anywhere, and require nothing more than a quick snapshot from your camera to record their information. In some ways, they’re like the quickest note you’ve ever taken.
Take Me Back
Yet if taking a picture of a strange, pixelated code seems a little bit, well, dated to you, that’s because it is. The format of QR codes is almost 20 years old, and there’s something quaint (and, to my mind, a little bit backwards) about scanning codes to get information. In this world of wireless communication, texting, instant messaging, Bluetooth and apps, it’s odd to have to take a picture of a code to get vital information about a company or product.
In fact, if you’re a geek like me, this may give you an overwhelming sense of déjá vu. Back in the late 90s, when the first internet boom was just gearing up, a product called the CueCat was released that did much the same thing – except you had to plug it into your PC in order to read the barcodes. Wired and a number of other magazines joined in briefly with the CueCat hysteria, printing odd slanted barcodes in their publications that you could scan with a cat-shaped reader (I’m not kidding) and have the information input directly to your PC. Because, you know, typing the URL of a website was such a chore – you needed a plastic cat with a cable for a tail to do it for you.
Of course, we now have smartphones with capable cameras, so you don’t need a fake feline to read the codes, and the web browser in your phone can go directly to the web site or resource that the QR code specifies. But, this leads to my primary problem with the current excitement over QR codes—do we really need them? In most cases, at least in a marketing or retail environment, they’re used to transmit very simple information, like the web address of a company. For the marketers, they do have the advantage of also transmitting that the visitor arrived via a QR code—which is great for the marketers to know, but useless for the consumer, who just wants to get information.
So, scan a code with your smartphone, wind up at a website. It’s not too hard to type the URL of a website into your phone (some of you with fat fingers might disagree with me, but still), so it’s tough to see QR codes in a marketing or retail campaign as much more than a gimmick. Mind you, I’m not suggesting QR codes or any type of barcoding are gimmicky when used in situations like purchasing, badge scanning, manufacturing, and so on. But in an ad for a beer company that takes you to that beer company’s website and nothing more? That’s a gimmick.
Which is not to say gimmicks are a bad thing. Many of them work, especially if they have a gee-whiz factor, and QR codes get people excited about what their smartphones can do. Look, it’s a scanner! The risk with any gimmick, however, is whether or not it will hold its appeal.
Should You Use Them?
For marketers looking to make it simple for their customers to get to their e-commerce website or download their app, QR codes are a potentially risky investment. Luckily, they’re inexpensive to implement and relatively innocuous—few consumers will be bothered by the presence of a small barcode in an ad or on packaging or signage. Still, it’s worth considering some of the threats to the long-term livelihood of this old-school technology:
- Wireless replacements: While wireless technology might not supplant QR codes printed in magazine and newspapers, elsewhere the threat of wireless technology is very real. Google and others have put their support behind NFC (Near Field Communication), which is a technology very similar to the SmartPass gas station payment cards and security system access cards that many of your currently use. NFC and RFID (a similar system that is slowly replacing barcoding in many warehousing and distribution systems) both constitute substantial threats to QR codes as they become more inexpensive and ubiquitous. After all, if you could get information about a product just by waving your phone near it (instead of holding up and focusing your camera) wouldn’t that be much simpler? As these technologies get even cheaper and smaller, don’t be surprised to find an NFC code in your favorite magazine or in a shelf talker at your grocery store.
- Limitations: While QR codes can store many times the information of a barcode, they’re still very limited in most forms. They’re fine for a website URL, a link to an app, or a special link to a promotion, but they’re not too useful for longer-form information. It’s best to think of QR codes as a quick way to transmit a short blast of information—at most, someone’s full contact info – but not much else.
- Fatigue: Like all gimmicks, QR codes run the risk of becoming passé, even as they enter the mainstream. As a supplementary form of marketing your product, there’s nothing wrong with throwing a QR code onto your marketing materials. But any marketing strategy that relies purely on QR codes for user response is likely going to be short-lived.
In a strange way, QR codes are actually forward-thinking: they are geared primarily toward mobile users of smartphones. Mobile web usage is skyrocketing and there’s no doubt that a good deal of the future of marketing lies on the mobile web. If you do build QR code campaigns, make absolutely sure that your landing pages (the pages that users go to when they scan the QR code) are mobile-friendly. But I’d recommend against building your mobile strategy on QR codes—they’ll likely be replaced by more advanced technology before you know it.
– Brent Buford
A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.