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4 reasons why I’m giving QR Codes a dot…dot…dot…

Posted on Wednesday, 13th July, 2011

When QR Codes emerged into mainstream US marketing last year as an extension of bridging print–> digital  mobile marketing, I was excited. With a personal focus on mobile engagement I saw myriad possibilities for instantaneous and individual marketing solutions using QR Codes and I immediately started brainstorming & wrote about it all here.

I silenced the all the skeptics and remained optimistic. But after a few months of experimenting, running a few formal pilots at work with different brands and being the consumer recipient of a lot of let downs, the challenges of trying to change consumer & advertiser behavior at the same time proved to be difficult and slow.  As a strategist, I feel as though I’ve done my due diligence here when it comes to testing new technology and assessing adoption and usage; and I’ve not seen the adoption and effectiveness rates I was hoping for and that’s why QR Codes are getting a dot dot dot. I’m an open minded person and there may be a future for us, but for now this promotional drivers’ got some maturing to do across the board. I submit 4 reasons why and what might aid in greater effectiveness:

1. ATU research inconclusive: traction vs. marketing effectiveness

There’s a lot of research out there that addresses the attitudes and usage of QR codes throughout the US. I wrote about this a few months ago when I was piloting a few tactical initiatives to better understand the adoption and use of QR Codes and what type of audiences may be respond well to this marketing. Note: most recent trend reports available from partnerships with ScanBuy and ScanLife.

In the absence of fully fleshed out ATU research by industry/audience you are left to your own devices to run pilots type of adoption AND on-demand marketing effectiveness for specific audiences. A lot of the trend report data highlighting traction & adoption but not necessarily marketing effectiveness. I care about both.

Case in point to readers: remember when Stickybits launched last year (a popular self contained mobile QR Code scanning program built on the idea that little 2D/QR Code stickers on physical objects could contain links to brand-centric stories, photos and video on the web–amplifying content across channel). Big brands like Pepsi thought it was a great idea. Users, not so much. They didn’t see the traction they were expecting, the path they expected didn’t align with consumer behavior.

There really wasn’t anything “sticky” about it so because of lack of traction and effectiveness the founders Billy Chasen & Seth Goldstein, embarked upon a remarkable pivot to an entirely different idea from their original proof of concept. Take a note from the startup world here- when investors are involved in showing return on an idea, traction AND effectiveness matters.

2. Absence of universal QR code generator & tracking/metrics

As a marketer that lives for analytics and metrics to track the promotional success/refinement strategies of initiatives, this issue remains a huge thorn in my side. Dependent upon the company you use to generate your code (insert myriad code generators here) some generators offer metric dashboards and some do not. Additionally, for most codes, the specific generator company only tracks the QR Code scan IF the same company’s scanner app has been used.

Are you confused after reading that? Imagine trying to explain that to other colleagues and clients who are less interested in the logistics and only the outcomes. Lack of universal code generators and scan metric dashboards are an issue for serious marketers who believe in results-based marketing.

For instance, with Scan Life (who for the record, is a great partner to have and provides seamless integration of tracking & metrics) ONLY tracks scans of a ScanLife generated code. So if we use a ScanLife Code BUT the code is scanned by 6 other scanning apps, we will never have record of those scan/end user behavior. Not enough information for me to make informed decisions based on scanning metrics. I really need to understand the behavior of the entire universe of people scanning the code.

3. Absence of universal mobile device QR code scanning app/instructions

There are upwards of 10+ available scanning apps like ScanLife, Bakodo, and Red Laser that you can download individually but mobile smart phones do not come equip with a universal QR Code scanner app. Why is this important/critical to the success of adoption? Because: Success of QR Codes are based in delivery of instant information. However, without a scanner app downloaded on your phone, the experience is anything but INSTANT.

I’ll give you 2 reasons:

1) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed people taking a picture (with their camera app) of a QR code and saying “it doesn’t work jess— why??” I used to get so annoyed with people who “couldn’t follow instructions” but then I realized that it’s behavioral- they glaze right over them. Inherently, I have found people want to take a picture of the code and have it work; they don’t get the “need to download the app” part first (kinda like Google goggles).

2) There are just too many steps involved for the non-mobile geek (sorry but it’s true). How annoying is this for someone who isn’t a geek like me? Very. If smartphones one day have a pre-loaded universal app available for QR Code scanning—we might alleviate a lot of this pre-work necessity that seems to be a barrier to marketing success— but even with that, the most important factor needs to be addressed (below).

4. Poor marketing/UX

Before I poke holes in some of the poor marketing I have been exposed to, I have also seen many successful marketing executions using QR codes (a  few noted below). Just not enough to balance out the bad.

If there’s on thing that drives me crazy it’s poor UX when it comes to mobile marketing/connection planning. Understandably this point is highly subjective in nature due to personal evaluative circumstances, nevertheless this #4 reason why QR Codes are getting a dot dot dot from me.

So what have we seen with QR Code marketing to date? Yes they are everywhere- they are slapped on journal/magazine advertisements, in subways, on business cards, stickered to bus stops and painted on sides of buildings. Well, as a self-professing mobile geek yes, maybe I scan everything I see—why? Because it’s MY research I want to see how other marketers are using this technology— is it effective? Where are they driving me? What are they giving me or asking me to do after I scan the code?

I have not been impressed not by the use of marketing that’s been put in front of me—I AM a consumer too. See below for visual proof. I mean not to poke hole into the marketing plans for certain brands but come on guys… this stuff is marketing 101.


80% of the time: I am driven to a non-mobile optimized website home page with no call to action (mobile marketing 101 repeat lesson #1: just because it shows up on your phone, doesn’t mean it’s mobile optimized)

Some other examples of what I’ve experienced below.

Jet Blue. The airline company with the best in class social media efforts cant get mobile marketing/media buys right? While this may be the most overused example of what not to do— this ad works GREAT……when it’s not placed in a subway car? Unfortunately they were plastered all over Manhattan for months. Last I checked NYC didn’t have wifi underground. Poor example of the creative agency and media agency not talking to an another, enough, or at all.










United Healthcare. I attended a mobile panel during Internet Week hosted by UH. Following the panel, the cocktail hour had tentcards driving to the transcripts form the sessions. However the mobile site wasn’t optimized? Not the best execution for a panel focusing on mobile best practices.










As a marketer I don’t think I’m being too harsh when I say I’m disappointed. And ps—agencies that are helping them out come on now…. tsk tsk. Stop ruining the expected UX for consumers. They won’t want to scan anymore! I don’t even want to scan anything anymore b/c I rarely get anything worthy.

When you think about the way you use a mobile phone its pretty self-identifiable what a good user experience looks like. Immediate. Simple. Useful. Actionable.  There’s no science behind why BBM & SMS are so popular—most mobile actions need to mirror the consumer behavior behind those actions.

All this poor marketing tells me 2 things— everyone may be excited to use the newest forms of mobile marketing but may not fully understand HOW or what’s involved in making it effective. If you use QR Codes—make sure you have a dedicated landing page where you can deliver something quick, and an actionable/useful CTA to offer the end user. Some examples of great mobile marketing using QR Codes:

  • a short video with call to action (Sephora product usage & techniques, Department of Sanitation on HowCast video “How to Recycle”)
  • a point-of-sale coupon (Best Buy/ShopKick)
  • an opt-in for continued relationship marketing/RSS feed (linking to iTunes/downloading a mobile app)
  • link to follow/tie to social media channels for future engagement efforts

In Summary

I will remain optimistic as I do for all emerging digital & mobile opportunities, but am retiring the QR Code pom poms for now until the following issues can be improved upon that net greater marketing effectiveness

  1. More conclusive ATU research on traction AND marketing effectiveness
  2. Universal code generator & tracking/metrics
  3. Universal mobile device code scanning application/software & instructions
  4. Better holistic mobile marketing efforts that optimize the end user experience

I will end my diatribe with a great case study example from Korea- regarding strategic mobile marketing utilizing QR Codes; done right.

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