5 Ways to Fail at QR Codes

It’s pretty damn cool to see QR codes (finally) skyrocketing in popularity here in the ‘States. I’ve been seeing them all over the place – in magazines, on signs and displays, winking from TV commercials, backing people’s business cards, even on bumper stickers. Unfortunately, as is usually the case as any new technology makes its way into the worlds of marketing and advertising, there are bound to be some people who get the “You’re doin’ it wrong” stamp. It’s to these ambitious QR code rookies that this post is dedicated: avoid the following pitfalls, and I’ll wager your QR code campaigns will go a lot better…

  1. It doesn’t help if we can’t scan it!  It’s great that you’ve got an awesome web link with lots of data values hanging off the end, and maybe a nice long tracking ID, and that you’ve turned it into a QR code. The problem is, that code is probably 20 to 30 blocks on-a-side, and unless a user gets right next to it and holds their phone at just the right angle, they won’t be able to scan it. One of our local realtors has taken a liking to just this approach – convert a long, convoluted link into an extremely-detailed QR code, then print it about 4 inches tall and plop it on top of the sign. Most people will see it as a gray square, and the few that do recognize it as a QR code will have to get out of their cars and walk up to it. Congratulations – you’ve provided exactly the same value as the paper flyers stuffed into the box down below. The solution: If you must use a web link that’s 2 miles long, pass it through a URL shortening service like Bit.ly or Goo.gl. In addition to a nice, simple, QR code that doesn’t have to be in spitting distance to scan, you’ll get the click-through counters and analytics that those services provide out of the box.
  2. Keep it mobile! Few practices in advertising get under my skin more than a QR code that redirects me to a company’s old-fashioned home page. The only way these QR codes are going to be scanned is using a mobile device – most likely a smartphone or tablet. So don’t dump me to your boring, slow-to-load, optimized-for-1280-pixel-screens home page. You know I’m going to be visiting from a mobile device, so send me to a mobile web page that my device can consume. If I have to double-tap, pinch-zoom, scroll around or squint to see the page you’re sending me to, chances are my interaction with you is going to end almost immediately after I scan your code.
  3. Consider the context! QR codes are great, but there are some places and times where even the staunchest techie will admit they don’t work all that well. It’s really hard to scan a QR code in a dimly-lit room. Same goes for scanning from a moving car or aboard a bouncing bus. But my favorite example is the web link QR code (a long, convoluted link, of course) proudly displayed on a NYC subway car. Yay! You’ve given me a link! On a subway car where there’s no freakin’ data service! Unless that train car happens to go above-ground (which, I admit, does happen occasionally in the outer boroughs) I can’t even visit the site you want to share with me, let alone take any action on it. Which leads me to…
  4. There’s more to QR codes than URLs! It’s exceedingly rare that I encounter a QR code that contains anything but a web link (a.k.a. a URL). But there are lots more things you can stuff into a QR code! A quick look at the options on the ZXing QR Code Generator indicates you can store calendar events, geographic locations, e-mail addresses, contact info, or even just raw text. Mobile devices know what to do with these different types of codes – scanning the QR code on the back of my business card, for instance, will net you all my encoded contact info that you can pull into your device’s address book with one click. That NYC subway ad – which was for a classical music concert – would have been much more useful as a calendar event code: let me save it to my device’s calendar, then I can take action on it later, when I’m back in cell service or sitting at my home PC.
  5. Make it worth our while! The bottom line and end goal for any ad campaign is to convince the viewer to take action. When you put a QR code in your visuals, you’ve already got your audience taking action – we’re scanning the code! So once we’ve done that, don’t just send us to the company’s home page, or to some boring campaign-specific landing page. Offer some value add. Macy’s hit the nail on the head with this one – their latest in-store campaign offers QR codes that link you to various web videos featuring designers offering fashion advice. Considering QR code early adopters (read: geeks like me) are probably the most likely to need such advice, this is pretty brilliant. Kidding aside, in a huge field of boring QR codes, Macy’s offers a post-scan experience that’s interesting and engaging, and tied directly to the products you’re browsing through and (if they’ve played their cards right) about to carry over to the cash register.
QR codes can be a very powerful tool for marketers and advertisers – but, as is the case with any technology, you have to understand their capabilities and limitations. Get it right, and you’ll engage with a new audience in a new mode. Get it wrong, and you’ll have people posting photos like this (as snapped at my local Best Buy) on Failblog…
Update 2011-10-10: Now this is some QR code innovation!

  1 comment for “5 Ways to Fail at QR Codes

  1. buzzardo
    September 26, 2011 at 10:34 am

    I believe many QR codes are becoming a “me too” symbol intending to mimic good QR codes without wanting to have any real value. I bet that marketing professionals are happy to have a simple link to a dead-end website if it costs nothing already, because they have a symbol that other people have done cool stuff with. Think of all the places it has already happened where a good idea suddenly becomes poorly implemented to provide the market with crappy imitations of great things. FEATURES are what sell stuff nowadays, where the mindset is less about content than about showing off, or having the latest and greatest. To me, marketers are saying: “We have this symbol that makes us trendy. Come in and buy stuff”. Make mine a carbon-fiber wing and dual 5″ exhaust tips.
    I suppose, however, that the real problem could be the lack of smartphone use for QR code recognition. Maybe the whole QR code idea was a bit early in its implementation. Fear not, I have an idea to prevent QR code whoring: copywrite the idea of a QR symbol. If it costs money to use this as a marketing tool, more respect will be given to the content that it contains or directs you to. We can hope in the meantime that the real value of such technology becomes better utilized. Go Macy’s!!

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