QR Codes are stupid. I still don’t get it.

marketing and business — Tags: , — Ramsey Mohsen @ Tuesday, March 8th, 2011 - 2:19 am

I’m trying really hard to understand why this technology, invented in 1994 (Japan), to track auto parts- why is *this* the next big thing? It’s a friggin’ bar code (101 on QR codes here). It just seems a bunch of marketers are globbing on to launch a campaign in fear of not being innovative or relevant. I’ve started doing research on this topic, and nearly spit out my water reading a quote from RetailGeek.com saying “QR codes represent the best way for an in-store marketer to connect the real world with digital content on a shopper’s mobile device.” Really? I’m having a hard time believing that. Here’s a few reasons why:

Level of education required

My mom has no clue what a QR code is. And she definitely doesn’t know what it looks like. The first step in using a QR code, is your audience has to know what it is, when they see it. Let’s call this hurdle #1.

You must download an app

In order to even scan a QR code, you’ve got to have an app that recognizes what it is. And smart phone cameras do not have native recognition for QR codes. The iPhone camera app won’t recognize it, nor will any Android phone. You must have a 3rd-party app. Hurdle #2.

Investment in time

Take a moment to think of the heavy investment in time you’re asking your audience to complete. Think of all the lost conversions that can happen along the way: 1.) Recognize the QR code and know what it is and what to do 2.) Have an app installed on their mobile phone to scan the QR code 3.) Scan the QR code 4.) THEN, complete what it is that you wanted them to complete when they get back the information.

We’ve come along way since 1994

Other technologies have been invented since 1994 that more gracefully tackle what QR codes are hailed to “solve” and make easy.

  • URL shorters and friendly versions of your domain. Easy to remember domains or sub-domains are a common practice, and is globally understood for “http://” or “.com or .org”.
  • Mobile websites and their ability to call functions or applications on smart phones are advanced and very capable. All the same functions that QR codes can do, mobile optimized websites are able to do this as well: activate a phone #, send an email, launch Google Maps or send a text message, and most importantly, this can be done without requiring the users to download an app first, to activate these functions.

I’m not saying you should never use QR codes. But before selecting and using QR code technology, think through the context of the visit from the end-users perspective. Think of your audience? Are they savvy enough? Do they have enough time given the context of where they are? Are you truly making it easier by asking them to scan QR code to get the information? OR are there other solutions and more practical ways to achieve the same goal of providing back the mobile content?

I’m still doing research on this technology, so prove me wrong in the comments if you think I’m off-base. Let’s hear it. I’ve been looking for successful case studies of QR executions, and the most notable one I’ve found so far is how Chevy used QR at the 2010 SXSW, only 240 people of the 12,000 people who attended, scanned the QR codes they put on cars that were on display. Tough conversion numbers in my opinion, especially for an audience that is considered on the highest end of the spectrum for being tech-savvy.

– Mashable posted today why they think QR Codes will go mainstream (i disagree).
QRmedia.us seems to be a good resource for updates in the QR industry.
http://goo.gl/ is a great tool for generating QR codes.
Bit.ly is a great tool for generating and tracking QR codes.
http://qrcode.kaywa.com is a great tool for generating QR codes.
http://www.customqrcodes.com/custom-qr-codes-gallery a great place for custom QR code examples and execution.
– Jay Baer provides his take and advice on QR codes usage in print advertisements

**update 2**


  1. All of the issues you point out are correct, but I think you’re making QR codes into something bigger than they are. QR codes don’t have to hit the wider audience in order to be effective, especially with our generation. They’re a simple, little-to-no-cost way of providing a little bit of data. I can think of these use cases:

    A QR code on a programmers business card which provides an address record for everything one sees on the card.
    A QR code on the front of a tricycle assembly manual, with a direct link to a YouTube video showing the assembly by an expert.
    A QR code near the exit of a restaurant, with a link to the store on Google Maps so you can star the location and provide a review.

    In these situations, you don’t. *have* to use the QR code, but those who do can be of help. They don’t hurt.

    Comment by Darren — 03/08/2011 @ 7:00 am
  2. I agree with 95% of what you are saying above. There are some new companies coming out with technologies that allow you jump over hurdle number 2 (www.jagtag.com for example) by lowering the needed technologies to a camera and the ability to send a text. Not needing a smart phone and an app does open the use of QR codes up to a much larger percentage of consumers but that doesn’t mean it’s always the right solution for the marketing challenge at hand.

    I do agree with Darren below that there are some useful times to use QR codes and if the cost to implement it is low and the possible return is high (Dad was able to assemble the tricycle in 15 minutes versus 2 hours making for a better experience) then go for it!

    Comment by Anonymous — 03/08/2011 @ 8:41 am
  3. I’m with you Ramsey – I’ve been wondering this myself because it’s not really better than a short URL for the person. I think we’re excited as marketers because it provides much better tracking of print ads, direct mail and other offline stuff…but that doesn’t mean consumers care.

    I was at one of the biggest tradeshows in the country in January (The International Builders’ Show) and in the booths for Kohler and ProBuild, there were QR codes throughout. Those are two of the biggest booths at this show (probably $10 million investment+) so their marketing teams aren’t dumb. But I had a couple people say to me, as I was scanning the QR codes, “you’re one of the few people we’ve had who even know what those are.”

    I think this is another case of marketers searching for the next big thing to get excited about, rather than working on core issues.

    Comment by Kyle Rohde — 03/08/2011 @ 8:58 am
  4. Darren nailed it. QR codes are fine as a utility, but when they’re presented as supplements to existing advertising or product packaging (something most people are trying to ignore anyway), they’re bound to fail. Last weekend, my wife and I saw a QR code on some product packaging in a grocery store, so I decided to give her a demo of how QR codes work. Her response was a simple “well, that’s stupid.” I agreed.

    Comment by Anonymous — 03/08/2011 @ 9:19 am
  5. Did anybody scan the QR code on one of the local newscasts recently? It went to some site in Japanese. Not sure if they meant for people to actually scan it, but they probably should have planned for a few people to try it.

    Comment by Dan Thompson — 03/08/2011 @ 9:37 am
  6. For the most part, I agree with you Ramsey. I see QR codes everywhere now, I know what they are, and I still don’t scan them. However, we’ve just recently started putting QR codes onto our business cards and it populates the person’s vcard. I do see this as effective because I don’t know about you but I have stacks of business cards that I’m just too lazy to sit down and enter all of the info into my contacts in my phone. With this one scan, it populates the information in your phone, “add to contacts”, that simple. But as we were talking about last night, I think you’re right that we do need to indicate what the QR code is going to populate, for instance putting “vcard” in small type under the code.

    So in fairness, I think they could be useful if used right but if a company just puts a QR codes in the corner of their ad in a magazine, I’m not going to scan it.

    Comment by Lauren — 03/08/2011 @ 9:48 am
  7. I agree. I think texting-in is more widely adopted (no app required) and still under utilized/marketed. I think they can make sense in print (magazine ad perhaps) but again, you must have compelling content (most likely video) to push back to the user.

    We’ve been evaluating this technology on our Digital Direct team. Recently we read this article from Email Insider http://bit.ly/gpiC53 but I have to completely disagree. QR codes do NOT belong in email.

    Comment by Cara Olson — 03/08/2011 @ 9:49 am
  8. I like your tricycle example. Those freakin toys have the worst directions sometimes!

    Comment by Cara Olson — 03/08/2011 @ 9:49 am
  9. QR codes were everywhere at Austin last year, and I’m sure that there’ll be twice as many when I go this week. I can tell you one thing: I never scanned a single one.

    QR codes seem like an obfuscation to user experience, not an enabler.

    Comment by Jeremy Fuksa — 03/08/2011 @ 10:13 am
  10. It’s like anything else in marketing first you must know who your audience is, what your purpose is and how the ‘innovative technology’ will help you reach both your audience and your purpose. If it won’t do one or the other and preferably both then just because it’s the ‘latest thing’ doesn’t mean it’s for you.
    I approach marketing the same way my mom taught me to buy a pair of jeans. Just because they are the latest craze doesn’t mean they are right for you, try them on…do they make your ass look good? If the answer is yes..then buy them if not, then it doesn’t matter how many people are buying them, they aren’t for you. Guys don’t care whose name is on your ass they care what your ass looks like in the jeans. The same goes for marketing/advertising. Does it fit your end goal? If not, leave it on the rack for someone for whom it does.

    Comment by Kate Crockett — 03/08/2011 @ 10:25 am
  11. Another hurdle: multiple formats. There’s classic (internet time) QR codes, Microsoft Tag (includes analytics) and fringe services like StickyBits… and the content they’re all providing easy access to usually sucks. If you’re trying to drive interest with first-timers or you’re a nerd explaining this to your significant other, it only takes one meh experience to permanently lose their interest.

    Comment by kylejohnston — 03/08/2011 @ 10:55 am
  12. Hurdle #1 : People learn about new tech and integrate it into their lives all the time. This, to me, isn’t a big hurdle, it’s part of a normal cycle.

    Hurdle #2 : Some phones already come with a scanner built in and the others are looking likely to follow. The exception possibly being the iPhone, but their users are used to downloading apps so…?

    Hurdle #3 : I see a billboard in the street on my way to work. I’m interested in the product and see a short url, a phone number to text and a QR code. The least time investment is the QR code – scan it there or snap a picture, go to work, scan picture later. As opposed to typing in a url (and maybe getting it wrong) or getting caught in the marketing hell of unsolicited text messages (that I probably end up paying for).

    A QR code is a useful PART of a marketing strategy, although not always suitable. Just like any marketing tool. Right now most use cases are poorly done, admittedly, but there ARE some great uses and this should hopefully become the norm.

    Comment by Steve O'Connor — 03/08/2011 @ 11:01 am
  13. Best use of a QR Code was on several ads in Chicago for the planetarium. The displays were in the waiting area in the subway and when you scanned the code with your phone it opened up a video talking about the star/planet/space thing in the ad you had just scanned. It was kind of like taking a video tour of the planetarium from the waiting area of the subway station.

    The Missouri Valley Conference also uses QR codes in their basketball game programs for each player. Since the programs are printed before the season even starts you can scan the code with your phone and get the updated stats, photos etc.

    Do I think QRs have hit critical mass? No, not yet. But they are interesting.

    Comment by Mike Ekey — 03/08/2011 @ 2:30 pm
  14. OF COURSE! The QR Code you use above brought me nothing but shame… :)

    Comment by Mike Ekey — 03/08/2011 @ 2:31 pm
  15. i think its more about knowing your audience. the IHBS prob isn’t the place to roll out emerging mobile technology.

    Comment by shaun — 03/09/2011 @ 10:00 am
  16. i agree about email too. why not put in a hyper link? do they expect people to take a picture of there email? mobile tags are about being MOBILE.

    Comment by shaun — 03/09/2011 @ 10:02 am
  17. THANK YOU! I thought I was the only one that still didn’t understand this particular marketing bandwagon.

    Comment by Brian Renner — 03/09/2011 @ 11:50 am
  18. Great thoughts here Darren. I think you also might be implying that you can’t solely rely on QR codes to reach your audience. But, it is a light, low/no-cost way to provide data.

    Comment by Ramsey Mohsen — 03/09/2011 @ 4:22 pm
  19. Thanks for the comment Mike. Saying they’re “interesting” is pushing it in my opinion. I think they’re stupid 😉

    Comment by Ramsey Mohsen — 03/09/2011 @ 4:23 pm
  20. Thanks for the comment Steve. I hope they don’t become the norm though…

    Comment by Ramsey Mohsen — 03/09/2011 @ 4:23 pm
  21. I must have missed this. I’m wanting to see any data or case studies with actual metrics to report on usage. It just seems nothing is out there. Which is suspect.

    Comment by Ramsey Mohsen — 03/09/2011 @ 4:25 pm
  22. Thanks for the comment Kyle.

    Comment by Ramsey Mohsen — 03/09/2011 @ 4:25 pm
  23. Imagine if @Apple and @Google built-in to their camera apps the QR capabilities. But they haven’t. Must be a good reason why…

    Comment by Ramsey Mohsen — 03/09/2011 @ 4:26 pm
  24. Thanks for the comment Chad.

    Comment by Ramsey Mohsen — 03/09/2011 @ 4:26 pm
  25. I will be out of the office March 8th & 9th with limited access to email. If this is an emergency please email Danielle Larson at dlarson@mbbagency.com.

    Thank you –

    Comment by Anonymous — 03/09/2011 @ 4:26 pm
  26. I put out my original comment on Facebook, but see the conversation has taken off here.

    here are my thoughts-

    No argument with any of your points and there are certainly barriers to entry. (Not to mention I think they’re ugly and wouldn’t want them on my packaging)

    Technology can fix some of those barriers for us. If all smart phone cameras automatically read the codes it would fix a lot of the issues right there. At one time I thought everyone would have to know HTML (Meaning that challenging becomes thinkless in this space really quickly)

    The time investment is also an understanding concern, but the brands that use this just better make sure that the value they give is worth the annoyance of the process. (for time being)

    I do understand why the idea of them take hold so quickly. Taking a 10,000 ft view of them, when they act as “links” in a physical space, things can get really interesting.
    Check out my post on them from last year http://www.joecox.me/joemarketing/2010/11/14/how-mobile-qr-codes-really-do-change-everything.html

    I’ve recently worked with a brand that was building QR type behavior using an app and the brand on the label. The “Google Goggles” approach (Budweiser recently did this too) has got some potential for LARGE brands that offer enough value to their consumers.

    I think the real reason that they seem to resonate so much in marketing meetings is because they join the offline & online worlds. Not a whole lot plays in that world right now and QRs are a very slight tip into that playground.

    Check out this infographic that I found on Mashable for some updated stats-


    Comment by Joe Cox — 03/09/2011 @ 5:32 pm
  27. Joe, I agree that it joins the on and offline worlds and that’s why we, as marketers, are excited. Obviously tracking is a plus for print ads too.

    I think the main failure with QR codes is that it requires too much of the consumer’s attention span. If you’re going to use 2-D codes, you need to entice them with something unique on the other side.

    Using QR codes is like a game show asking a contestant to see what’s behind the door number 1. However, once they do scan it, if there isn’t something amazing on the other side then you will disappoint and turn them off because they invested so much time jumping through the hoops.

    Comment by Guest — 03/10/2011 @ 11:26 am
  28. while I agree with your potential hurdles — and need for more industry standardization — each consumer only needs to surmount the hurdles ONCE before an increasing use of QR codes across media.
    And once they’ve downloaded the app they’re so much more likely to scan the next interesting QR code vs typing in another url (lower level of commitment each subsequent time). this is why adoption has been increasing, especially among younger segments (regardless of whether your mom or mine ever catch on!).
    never doubt the lure of curiosity… and need to deliver a compelling experience

    Comment by brian — 03/11/2011 @ 1:11 am
  29. Hey Darren, sorry to make you spit out your water :)

    QR Codes are not a common convention in the US yet, and so in that sense you are right. But bear in mind that many innovations have to start as an unfamiliar concept before they reach a tipping point of popularity. ATM machines, e-commerce, and mobile phones were all thought of as silly unfamiliar concepts that “my mother would never adopt” before they became familiar, popular, and used by our mothers. I remember how silly I thought it was the first time I saw a URL used in a print ad, but now even my grandmother knows what they are.

    The earlier adopters are using QR codes in stores more and more, millions of users have now scanned a code at Best Buy, to say nothing of recent deployments at Macy’s and elsewhere. The best selling mobile OS (android) does natively read QR codes w/o an app, and I’m sure subsequent versions of the other mobile OS’s will eventually support them as well. QR codes are showing up on NY Building Permits, the Jimmy Fallon Show, print ads, Google door signs, etc… they are marching ever closer to their tipping point.

    In the long run, I’m sure that 2D barcodes will be replaced by an even better NFC based solution, but I’m betting that we’ll have a significant window where 2D bar codes are the common convention before NFC readers are ubiquitous.


    Jason “Retailgeek” Goldberg

    Comment by retailgeek — 03/15/2011 @ 3:15 am
  30. If the mobile devices make then native, it will be a game changer. But it’s a good question to ask why Apple and Google have not done this. Perhaps they’re worried they can’t guarantee reliability or the experience given the current state or flux of QR.

    Jason, thanks for leaving a comment.

    Comment by Ramsey Mohsen — 03/15/2011 @ 9:25 am
  31. I am shocked at your stance on QR Code use – being the “Director of Social Media” and a video-blogger, one would think you are a more innovative thinker that what you just made yourself to appear from this article. I highly suggest you open your imagination up as to where a user could land as a result of scanning a QR Code – I’ll bet you’ll change your position and get a little motivated to overcome those (minor) hurdles you mentioned.

    Comment by Jim — 07/21/2011 @ 10:19 am
  32. […] QR Codes are not evil…or even stupid (Workshop #3) – Sorry Ramsey! […]

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