The Potential and The Predicament of QR Codes

Lately, it seems like they’ve been popping up everywhere…friendly little 2-dimensional bar codes called QR Codes have been appearing in advertisements, on billboards, and even on this blog! For those not familiar, QR Codes are a type of bar code that can be read by smartphones – including iPhones, Android handsets and Blackberries. They can contain just about any data – from contact information (readily imported into one’s address book) to web site addresses (which open in a mobile browser) or even geographic coordinates (which open a map)!

Because QR Codes offer a recognizable way for smartphone users (who now account for almost one-in-three US mobile phone users) to access desirable content, advertisers, organizations and businesses have been making increasing use of these little black-and-white blocks to add value to customer interaction. For example, catching onto the trend that smartphone users were scanning UPC codes in-store to find better deals on their products, Best Buy introduced scannable QR Codes to their shelf labels, offering a quick link to the retailer’s web site for detailed product information. But, as can happen when marketing departments get ahold of new technology they don’t fully understand, the occasional faux-pas is inevitable… Head past the jump for some photos and stores of QR Codes gone awry…

For an easy example, take this photo – which I snapped outside our local Best Buy. While the retailer did a great job with their in-store codes, whoever dressed the window apparently didn’t realize that hanging a giant QR Code behind a window railing renders it completely un-scannable – and thus completely useless. The moral of the story? If you’re going to put up something for people to scan, make sure they can scan it!

Along the same lines? Sears dropped a convenient QR Code into a recent ad, but ran it in standard-def… which meant the code was so distorted by compression, it was pretty much useless:

But the ways you can screw up a QR Code campaign don’t end there… Less than a mile from that afore-mentioned Best Buy store is a newly-opened Naked Pizza location. Outside, a proudly-displayed poster directs smartphone users to a QR Code – which, in turn, is supposed to direct them to enter a contest to “Win free pizza for a year!” Unfortunately, the code simply points to the franchise pizza purveyor’s web site – which is neither localized nor mobilized – on which the entry form is nowhere to be found. The moral of the story? Don’t insult smartphone users by using QR Codes as a gimmick to drive traffic to your plain-jane web site. Point to a site that’s properly formatted for mobile devices, and – more importantly – make sure the site delivers on what the QR Code’s context promises!

But the best QR Code quandary of them all? I spotted it on an advertisement in a New York City subway car, during a recent visit to The Big Apple. Prominently displayed in the corner of the 1×3-foot ad was a fairly large QR Code – which told me it was chock full of data. But when I tried to scan the code with my phone, the trouble started – the complexity of the code made it very difficult to scan while the train was moving. A simpler code, scaled up to the same size, would have been far easier to scan as the subway car rocked and jostled its occupants. But it doesn’t stop there – once I successfully scanned the code, it revealed a long, complicated web address – which could have easily been shortened using or, making the code much easier to consume! But, if you haven’t caught it by now, I already revealed the biggest forehead-smacker of all – the ad’s QR Code contained a web address … and I was riding on the subway! Where there is, as yet, no mobile Internet access. So how am I supposed to visit this convoluted URL? I realize the trains occasionally run above-ground, especially in the outer boroughs, but … really?

The sad thing is, the misfortune of my subway-borne QR Code experience could have been completely avoided in a useful way. The advertisement in question was for a musical performance – so rather than a web address, the QR Code could have contained a calendar entry with the date and time of the performance, as well as a shortened web address that I could visit later. Like, say, when I see the event on my calendar a few weeks later, and recall the advertisement. Then, with network access at my disposal, I could check out the accompanying web site and – consistent with the universal goal of advertising – take action on what I find.

So, the moral of the greater story? QR Codes can be great promotional tools, and can be a great way to get smartphone users to interact with your product, service, event or web site. But before you go slapping them on your posters or billboards or TV commercials, stop and think about the context where your code will be scanned – and make sure the code’s content will be useful in that context.

  2 comments for “The Potential and The Predicament of QR Codes

  1. December 6, 2010 at 9:30 am

    And soon QR codes will drain into the ubiquitous sewer of cool ideas, because they are being poorly implemented and require far too much concentration for the droves of youngins developing Attention Deficit Dis-

    oooOOOOooo, SHINY!

    • dave
      January 22, 2011 at 12:59 pm

      I wonder what an “island of misfit ideas” would look like – a land where Apple Newtons frolick along with myriad other ideas that were ruined by premature introduction or numbskulled implementation…

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