Think big. Be different.

Why QR Codes Aren’t The Coolest Thing Since The Sling Shot

By Garrett Moon on April 30, 2012 in News.


It’s a word that has surrounded social media marketing for years. We all know what I’m talking about — those Internet marketing gurus who are maybe a bit extreme, perhaps a little too enthusiastic for close comfort. They seem almost rabid when it comes to Internet marketing, touting Facebook as the next biggest and best business revolution. And now, it seems, the online marketing world is totally obsessed with QR codes.

QR codes put the burden on the customer, and obscure where they lead to.

It’s All About Adoptability

The difference between a QR code and a traditional graphic or image is one of immediacy. It takes a lot of work to scan a QR code.

We have to dig that phone out of our pocket. We then need to scroll, swipe, and search to find our favorite QR code scanning app. Then, we have to steady our hands, wait for it, wait for it…code grabbed. Then we wait while our phone processes and hops on a network to access whatever it was the QR code directed it to. And for what? To open a web page?

Couldn’t we always do that?

QR codes may be popular in Japan and in niche groups, but they are still a long way from mainstream here. Consider a recent study that found nearly 8 out of 10 college students weren’t particularly interested in QR codes:

Archrival, a research group that focuses on youth marketing, surveyed 500 students at 24 colleges and universities across the United States. They found that although about 80% of students owned a smartphone and had previously seen a QR code, only about 20% were able to successfully scan the example QR code they were shown.

Furthermore, about 75% said they were unlikely to scan a QR code in the future.

Why are people reluctant to scan QR codes?

They need an outside app for their smartphone. They don’t know where the QR code will take them and if it is even worth the time. Some businesses foolishly use a QR code to take users to a non-mobile friendly destination. And, sadly, there’s a security risk. Malware and phishing scams easily make use of QR codes.

There is a big difference between typing in a URL and scanning a bar code. Sure, it takes time to type in a URL. But we type in URLs all the time, knowing what page we want to end up on. Scanning barcodes on the other hand – it’s fun when we first get our smartphone, but after a while, do we really feel like pulling out our phone, locating an app, scanning a QR code, scanning it again if the app couldn’t grab it, and ending up on a website that’s not offering anything special?

It goes against all the “rules” of marketing. QR codes put the burden of work on the customer.

It’s All About The Marketer

Who wins with QR codes?

QR codes are the epitome of a marketer’s idea if there ever was one. It promises a quick fix — “People can get to your website really easily!” — and neglects a lot of foundational issues. QR codes are more a navigational tool than a marketing tool, and shouldn’t be sold to businesses as anything else.

What does the customer really get out of a QR code? They get a “quick” link to a new website, maybe, or a block of text. Perhaps this will be perfect for the iPhone 7 which is already rumored to be sans-keyboard (all part of the minimalist Apple design strategy, sigh), but for most users, it isn’t terribly necessary.

Not only this, but photo-recognition technology is already out there and quite mature. The App can already recognize a box of cereal, and zip you of to the right place. Google Goggles continues to improve. Near field communication is picking up steam. We’re already more advanced than the barcode. Why not move on?

Marketers who push this in a quick-sell method, and encourage businesses to use QR codes willy-nilly without stressing the importance of ensuring that the QR code must lead somewhere worthwhile, end up creating a kind of QR code resistance in the end user. Users learn, after one or two disappointing experiences, that QR codes lead to something with little value or interest at the end of all that work. They stop using QR codes, because they don’t end up being worth the effort.

Until the customer has made a habit of scanning codes to get to where they need to go for navigation, please put away your projector Mr. QR code over-hypist. It isn’t in the best interest of the people that we serve. Customers don’t use or think about QR codes, and aren’t going to start, particularly if the codes are used poorly by businesses focusing on hype instead of help. It isn’t part of our user’s go-to strategy for Internet navigation, and we can’t create that habit by training them that QR codes are dead-end marketing ploys.

QR codes have a lot of hype surrounding them.

The Quick Fix Is Broken

Here’s the real problem. Let’s call her Brenda. She runs a hair salon, and is interested in using social media to reach out to her customers. It all sounds great so far. How should she do this? She has no clue where to start, so she registers for the $99 seminar by the local social media guru. Also great, until…

…the guru spends 45 minutes touting the next big wave of social media engagement – QR codes. Brenda is pleased. These things seem like the future. All there is to this whole social marketing thing is a few QR codes here and there? Wonderful! Life is good again.

The problem is, of course, that it just doesn’t work like that.

Social media is hard work. It takes conversation, content, and consistency. The quick fix rarely works, and poor Brenda has been mislead into thinking that if she builds her QR code, people will come. Just putting a QR code in her marketing material will bring people flocking to her business.

People won’t automatically scan our QR code if we haven’t already built the trust and conversation around our brand.

The Path Of Least Resistance

It’s true that there are a many examples of creative and successful uses of QR codes, and that creating a QR code is free and easy to do online, but they aren’t a guaranteed success for every situation.

QR codes might work with high-level coupons or in a large event situation, and people have been finding clever uses for them ranging from jewelry, geocaching, street art, and even (it’s true) cemetery headstones. These are situations, however, where the end-user of the QR code is actively wanting the information, and will do the work to capture the QR code. These aren’t true marketing situations.

When a business uses a QR code as a marketing tool, it means we’re putting the burden of work back on a customer in our advertising and asking them to scan our code for even more opportunities to be marketed to. What customer wants to do that? It really isn’t a plan for successful marketing.

A gimmick is a gimmick. People are quick to spot them and find the path of least resistance. And that path won’t be through a QR code to a website to nothing in particular. Good marketing makes it easy and obvious for the customer, and a QR code doesn’t provide either.

  • Deanna Kastrinos

    I saw a QR code today on a website. Geniuses.

  • Gareth Wilson

    It’s a great idea but as mentioned earlier I have smart phone and I don’t know how to scan a QR code on it .

    • Garrett Moon

      My point exactly! Thanks for the comment Gareth.

  • Travis Maclay

    I agree. The only thing worse than a QR code is getting rick-rolled by a QR code. Thanks for that :)

    • Garrett Moon

      Yep. We’re tricky like that :)

  • Ivan

    It’s not an end-all be all. But I don’t think you should completely abandon it.

    according to comScore Data Mine
    “20.1 million mobile phone owners in the U.S. used their device to scan a QR code in the three-month average period ending October 2011.”

    Now this may not be this huge number…
    But people ARE using their phones to research products and services.

    I believe their are two problems with QR codes right now…

    1. People (like Gareth above) don’t know how to scan them (which is an easy fix, mention below code “scan this with your phone any QR scanner app will work”)

    2. QR codes are implemented so badly, once scanned on a mobile phone, the user is sent to a (standard web page on a mobile = hard to read + hard to navigate) or it’s completely unrelated to what they are scanning (just sends the user to a useless general information page or worse).

    I personally believe QR codes will pick up because it’s easier to scan to get more information then it is to manually type it into the phone… especially if you have a compelling reason to get them to scan

    • Garrett Moon

      I think you are right with the problems you’ve outlined, but I am not nearly as optimistic for their future. Thanks for reading – and for the comment.

    • Greg Loveless

      the actual data is showing a world wide increase in scanning, and not just in “niche groups” and Japan, despite this authors and other inability to understand QR codes, in actuallity it is becoming increasingly easy to use as evidenced by the fact that both apple phones and samsungs are now shipped with a built in QR processsing applications