Marketing Red Herring - QR Codes

I’m in digital marketing. I spend a lot of time dealing with ways of people visit websites to get them to spend money. (That’s the short version. The really short, and moderately soul-suckingly depressing version. The long version is … an entire career.) So I deal with a lot of different ideas, tools, methodologies, and directions that — in theory — make everyone’s lives easier.

Every so often, we get hit with buzzwords. Sometimes, they’re tech-related, like DHTML, AJAX, and HTML5 (remember, I deal with these things every day — I know what they really mean). Sometimes, they’re things like “progressive enhancement” or “responsive design” (yes, buzzwords — they can grossly over-simplify reality). And then there’s the Big Shiny™ stuff that distracts from simplicity.

Let me tell you a few things about QR Codes

If you haven’t already heard of the term, you’ve definitely seen them by now. They’re almost impossible to miss. They’re on bananas for pete’s sake!What are they? Simple version: bar codes, an improvement on the decades-old UPC barcodes we normally see on our cereal boxes.


They’re not doing the same thing that UPC codes do. UPC codes provide a number — JUST A NUMBER — to a computer for the purposes of recording something. We see them most in grocery stores (leading to the ubiquitous “bleep” sound as the number is acknowledged by the till), but they’re also used by companies like FedEx for tracking, and by companies doing equipment inventories, and so forth.

QR Codes were invented by a Japanese automaker to do basically the same thing, but provide more information than UPC codes, and allow the code to be effectively read even if the code was upside-down or on an angle. QR Codes can contain quite a lot of information, and textual information — not just numbers — including the ability to use different alphabets.

So what the heck is it doing on your banana?

Well, that’s the problem, actually. It shouldn’t be there.

Here’s what happened. The Japanese realised the (notable) intelligence of the QR barcode format, and started to use it in intelligent places, such as passport documentation, train tickets, and places where things needed to be scanned, quickly, and information needed to be encoded for computers. They were never meant to be used by humans directly.

Well, some intelligent marketing shmuck (‘cuz it weren’t no engineer, I’ll tell ya that) saw these things in use, did a little research, and suddenly realised: HEY! This would make a GREAT way of providing a short cut for people to get URLs, or text information, or [insert not-thought-through idea here].

Sounds good, though, doesn’t it? But here’s the problem. Someone jumped from Step 1 to Step 4, without considering the full experience. Let me try this one on for you (which I’ve actually seen, and attempted, myself).

You’re at a bar. The waitress (honestly, are men allowed to work at bars, anymore?) places down a coaster for the soon-to-arrive beer. On the coaster is an eye-catching graphic title of a brewery, along with a big ol’ QR code.

Okayyyy… now what? Do you know what to do with it? Take a picture, maybe? Okay, but there isn’t a SINGLE mobile phone on the market (that I know of, anyway) that — when you use the default picture-taking functionality — do anything but take a picture. You now have a picture of that coaster. Whoop-dee-do.

The problem is you need a QR decoder — something that’ll look at that picture, analyze the alignment, and figure out what those dots are supposed to mean. Every phone requires you to fire up an app to do that. On Blackberry, you need to open App World. On Android, you need to at least fire up Google Goggles (assuming it’s even installed). On iOS, you need to download an app that you don’t already have — there is no native ability whatsoever.

Oh, and you have to take the picture again with that app, ‘cuz they don’t usually go to the picture you just took.

Depending on the app, they’ll display a message (let’s assume it’s a URL, just for fun), or (if you’re lucky) prompt you to open the webpage directly. Basically, you have to open an app, just to open the real app (the browser).

And all of that assumes you actually know what the hell to do with QR codes. I would argue a large number of people don’t know or care. They remember the brand name that’s there, and check it out later. Assuming, that is, that some moron didn’t make the entire ad a QR code.

Let’s be honest, marketers, you’re trying to drive mobile traffic. We get that, it’s totally cool, really. But, for the love of pete, put some thought into it? You’re spending way too much time addressing the barrier to entry, than about the actual content you’re using to actually sell something. You’d be smarter getting yourself a nice, short (and preferably memorable) URL.

‘Cuz I’ll wager in the time it takes someone to fire up their QR code app, I can already have typed in the URL into my browser.

Two more things to consider:

  1. Don’t forget the mobile market’s biggest segment — youth — can type way faster than you can. Making them work for a website is going to turn them off whatever it is you’re trying to sell them.
  2. When was the last time you tried to remember a QR code to share with someone else?