So you’ve probably started seeing them: little squares made up of various black and white boxes. You’ve probably seen them on bus shelters, inside of mass transit, or in magazines. You’ve probably also wondered “what the hell is this?”. That, my friend, is a 2D bar code. Often called a “QR code” or a “tag”, it’s the latest way marketing goof-balls are jumping on the “me too” bandwagon in a big way. You see, if 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. I made a little video about 2D bar codes a few months ago; if you want a little diversion, you can watch it here.
Since I posted that video, I’ve been seeing more and more of them. I realize that advertisers just don’t get it. (My ego took a big hit as well; I thought the Cellit blog was daily reading for all interactive marketers coast-to-coast, and they surely would have seen my video by now!) So, what better way to get the word out is to count down the Top 11 Ways QR Codes Suck. Here we go…
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 it recognizes the image at all). Obstructions, fog, movement, awkward or distant placement (such as on billboars) 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 in #11 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 (such as a simple “text for a URL” 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 URL 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). In order 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, currently at O’Hare airport in Chicago, there is 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 travellers that don’t find QR codes nearly as interesting as you do). Had the brand instead run a “text for info” campaign, the user could simply remember to “text BRAND to 12345” and do so in the boring cab ride home. (The user would have received the exact same URL link, and the brand would have had the added benefit of capturing the user’s cell phone number.) Alternatively, the advert could simply say “visit brand.com on your phone” which would still keep the line moving at the airport.
7. QR Codes can’t “go viral”
Cellit has had several text message campaigns “go viral”. That is, word got out on a keyword, and before we knew it, people were blogging, Facebooking 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 as you’re standing in front of it.
6. QR Codes remove brand association
With text messaging campaigns, or even simple advertisement of a mobile web site, the brand is included in the message. Ie, text BRAND to 12345 or visit m.brand.com. With QR codes, no such association exists. Further, when the consumer types in m.brand.com or texts BRAND to 12345, the very act of typing in the brand’s name reinforces its recall in the mind of the consumer. In fact, I have seen a few QR campaigns that have no branding on them whatsoever other than the QR code.
5. QR Codes only work on smart phones with cameras
Only 45% of the US population currently has a smart phone. While this number is projected to explode in the next two years, it is 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 display. (QR codes can be much smaller for in-book pieces in magazines)
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 additional 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 keyword tags). If you can’t measure radio and television, your usage is substantially limited.
And last but not least…
1. People don’t know what QR codes are!
Most importantly, by and large, most people simply don’t even know the purpose of a QR code or what to do with it. 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 (surprise!) 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%.
I truly hope this list has convinced you that QR codes are typically not the solution for your mobile marketing campaign. While I have listed eleven reasons here, the simplest answer is: why make something harder than it needs to be! Use text messaging or advertise a URL. The QR code is simply “marketing to marketers”!