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QR codes - a bit of a let-down

QR codes - a bit of a let-down

January 09, 2012 by Dan Parker

QR code cowI’ll be honest — I love advertising! Being magically sucked into the brand or experience as a consumer can be an extraordinary journey, sometimes painful, quite often exceptional. Maybe I’m a strange workaholic but to see how other companies engage with consumers is a fantastic and creative education we can all learn from.

I see adverts promoting brands, some encouraging social conversation, whilst others collect customer leads in return for voucher codes or even a test drive for your new Ford Focus.

However, this year I’ve spent most of it cringing at a particular advertising “shambles” — QR Codes (Quick Response codes) or barcodes as they are so often confused with.

Being a gadget fiend, I thought this would be brilliant, a quick scan from the phone in my pocket and I’m into a new world surrounded by captivating content from my favorite companies. But I’m consistently let down, time and time again.

It’s the daft use of such codes that has been, I’m afraid to say, a real embarrassment for advertising — even worse when used as the sole call-to-action. Most of the time, I’m directed to a non-mobile optimised site, which leaves me lost on an unrelated page and walking away with less information than I started with. My latest copy of Marketing Week, which once had QR codes throughout, now only has one on an advert for a “Marketing College”, and it doesn’t even work!

And what consumer data is being captured? None. At least with a link to a Facebook page or even a SMS auto-reply (I’m biased, but hey, it works!), the advert will offer more for you and your customers. More importantly, your customers understand this effective technology.

Unfortunately, the abundance of common QR mistakes is one education we could do with forgetting. On top of that, a recent survey by Simpson Carpenter shows that only 34 per cent of your customers know what a QR code is used for. And of those that do, only 11 per cent have scanned one. Are you really happy neglecting two-thirds of your potential customer base?

How about the QR code added to the end of the Waitrose TV advert last year? For those that spotted it, they had about two seconds to grab the mobile phone from their pocket; download an app; wait for it to load and leap out of their chair to capture the code with the gracefulness of a catapulted “Angry Bird”. This year, they’ve ditched the QR code for a Blippar tag. “What?”, you ask. All I can say is...I hope you’ve got Sky+!

QR codes do have their place in your marketing activity and can really boost your business profile in many innovative ways to a very selected audience. John Lewis’ recent virtual shopping boards is one fantastic example. No doubt, in time, more and more consumers will get to grips with what they are. How many will actually use it though, is still up for debate.

For me, the process is just too clunky and slow. Perhaps they should be renamed NRTQR (Not Really That Quick Response) Codes.

Dan Parker is an expert contributor to Marketing Donut and the marketing director of online SMS marketing specialists FireText Communications.

For another take on QR codes, take a look at John McGarvey's blog on mobile apps on the IT Donut


LobsterDM's picture

I'm a big fan of QR Codes as I see them as the most appropriate why to get a clickable link into a real life scenario. We're all used to receiving electronic messages with a "click here" type action but with printed media it's not been possible to have this immediate response in the past. Advertising has had to rely on hoping that a consumer would remember a URL, go home, type it in to their browser and wait for the site to load.

For those who way QR Codes are too clunky, you do only have to download the reader once. After that you just have to open it like you would any app on your phone, we don't complain that making a call is too clunky or sending a text is too long winded yet there are more operations to do that than to scan a QR code.

The problem with QR codes is that most often marketing people have no clue what they're doing with them or how powerful they can actually be. Their flexibility is almost endless and when used by a creative mind they can be really strong marketing tools. 

Dont dismiss them just yet. They need time to become more common place and for the public to become familiar with them. Once this happens I'm convinced that everyone will see just how useful they can be.

danparker's picture

I think the main factors result in so many of markting individuals losing common sense when applying QR codes. There is some potential in the technology, but, the overall process is still too clunky. This needs to be improved somewhat and will take some time.

I've had a great number of friends and family that have read this blog via my facebook page. The response is: "What is a QR code? What are you talking about?"... I'm worried that the only real group of indiviudals that understand QR codes are those that live with it and read about it - possibly restricted to business owners or marketeers.

I've also seen a number of businesses that have deployed QR codes as a tool to dramatically improve a suffering a single call-to-action! I think the ease-of-creation brings a sense of "adding technology / adding sales", but has a careless follow through and has resulted in further suffering. There are other tried and tested tools out there for this need. As business owners, we need to take risks, but not silly ones, over and over again.

The bottom line is I truly believe for a business to really shine, every single stage of the purchase or interaction needs to be a real experience. From the first impression of a brand, through to the telephone call or web visit, to receiving the goods or service. The way so many QR codes are carelessly used can demonstrate a sloppy experience right from the outset.

However, it's always easier to point out others' mistakes - so it's good to see some businesses trying!

Perhaps the education of QR codes needs to focus on the PR potential of unique and eye-catching ideas. And will continue to add value to a well thought-out experience or interaction. Some brands are suited perfectly for innovative interaction using QR codes. Others are not.

jamesgurd's picture

Morning all,

I find this discussion quite interesting. Some valid points but also I think there is a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Pritesh - the ability to record live TV and playback when you want means that advertisers can potentially tap into the audience that has the ability to pause and scan. Yes it's likely to be a small % but heh, if you don't try you don't learn. I think we need to stop being so reactionary and realise that testing is what has evolved all other forms of marketing. The potential down side is the QR code having a distraction effect from the key message and other calls to action. Again, that can be tested.

Liam - NFC does have significant potential but if QR codes aren't mainsteam, then NFC is even further away. Many new smartphones come with built-in scanners but not NFC capability. Lots of plans afoot to release more NFC enabled devices and the rumour is that the new iPhone will support it (though same rumour applied to the last release). It will be interesting to see how the Orange & Barclaycard Quick Tap scheme pans out this summer during the Olympics vs. the Google Wallet. Still, it requires retailers/service providers to install the hardware to support NFC and that's going to be a gradual process. Apparently NFC is installed in all UK McDonalds restaurants - how many customers do you think know that and have paid via this option? I'd love to know.

Dan - who says it's not wise? The market data shows that usage of QR codes is growing. As of Sept 2011, 11% of UK mobile audience had used a QR code. The global mobile audience is 6bn subscriptions, 59m in UK of which 16m access Internet via mobile device - so that's >1.6m in the UK. Importantly, only 2% of people who scanned a QR code said they wouldn't do it again (June 2011 research - sorry don't have source as my short term memory is rather poor!). September 2011 survey found that 70% people more likely to remember an advert with a QR code (via Econsultancy).

It's innovators and early adopters who drive adoption and increase market awareness. Some get in wrong, others jump on the bandwagon without thinking it through. They will potentially put people off but it doesn't mean there is no potential.

To say it's not wise I think is to miss the point and misinform. What's not wise is to make a decision without testing it for yourself. Of course there are some situations when you're probably right and using a QR code will achieve nothing but that is for the marketers to figure out and learn how best to use it.

I know a few B2B companies planning to use QR codes in the bid process to personalise uniform and dry tender documents to see if they can increase the interaction their audience has with their output and get better audience engagement. The whole point is they are looking at how a QR code can deliver benefits to both customers and the business. To that I say fair play and I'm glad that not everyone dwells on the negatives.



LiamODowd's picture

The trouble with QR codes? Not smooth enough. You have to download an app, get your phones camera to focus on the code its self, then different programs handle your request differently.

NFC will surpass all of these problems once the majority of smart phones and devices handle it. I just hope QR doesn't stifle the desire for the creative avenues NFC will flourish in.

RedTapeDoc's picture

PS: If you’re new to QR codes like me see





RedTapeDoc's picture



I must say I was comply mystified by QR codes until my brother explained how they work.  Unfortunately, I still fail to see how our human resource business could use them as a marketing tool. 



findenlake's picture

A client of ours keeps puts QR codes in his email signature which utterly baffles me. Quite apart from the fact the QR code takes you to the company homepage, when you're viewing the site how the heck are you supposed to scan it when it exists solely on your mobile screen?

For me QR codes have their place for quick access to unique content, competitions and unwieldly links, but they're frequently overused at present. Whilst they present a useful marketing tool, too many people seem keen to portray them as a "game-changing" technology. A part of the marketing mix, but not an integral one.

danparker's picture

Thank you for your comments. It's amazing how much hype QR codes have created. It's a shame the hype only seems to appear in the professional world and not with consumers.

James - intrigued by the London Underground campaign. I saw one in an in-flight magazine last month.

it's definitely a mixture of marketers not using it correctly or missing common-sense fundamentals. AND, even if we do get it right, with such a small percentage of consumers knowing anything about a QR code - it's not a wise tool for current time. An attempt to look cutting edge appears to fail more times than I've seen it succeed.

InitioH's picture

Yes, for most people QR codes are just weird, easily ignored squares that have started popping up on things without explanation. And if you do know what one is, you'll know when it's being used badly - which is all too frequently the case.

At present it seems QR codes are being used out of obligation to appear up to date with the latest tech, but without well thought out application brands would be better off forgetting about them altogether and focusing on actual marketing.

jamesgurd's picture

Hi Dan,

Good article. I think you're spot on with QR codes - a QR code is an innate object, it can't by itself work or fail. It's how you use the code and how well you think through the customer proposition and user journey that dictates the impact.

There are some great examples and some shockers. In the positive corner are concert ads in press that use QR codes to take you to an online booking page to purchase tickets. Ok the page isn't always 100% optimised for mobile but the journey is easier than having to open your mobile browser, type in an address etc. I know it works as I've spent more than I should on Jan gigs as a result:)

In the shocker corner is the Tree-Athlon London 2010 poster campaign on the London Underground with the QR code response. Wonderful idea except that the majority of LU stations are underground and most too deep to get mobile signal. So you can't actually respond unless you are willing to wait until the train surfaces.....

For me it's no different to any other call to action - if it's not relevant, easy to use and doesn't add value to customers, forget it. However, if planned intelligently, QR codes can help drive response and make life easier for customers.



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