The Year of the QR Code: 20Never

by Jeff on January 6, 2012 · 2 comments

in Things I Hate

Warning: This post is at least tangentially related to my job as an online marketer. You may wish to avoid it.

About three years ago, I radically redesigned my business cards. This was the first card I designed for myself in the wake of pink kind of accidentally becoming my ‘personal brand’* color. I can barely stand to look at the thing now for two reasons: first, because it’s a typographic nightmare, but second because of the gigantic QR code on it.

QR codes were very exciting at one point. Like a lot of things that we can accomplish with the Internet, though, the reality is never as good as the promise and we live in a world where most people are perplexed by QR codes while a small core of people who are mostly interested in demonstrating how savvy and clever they are keep trying to foist them on a public that is probably never going to scan them.

There are two great barriers to the democratization of QR codes, and neither is likely to change any time soon, even if 2012 manages to somehow finally be ‘The Year of Mobile’ that has been presaged since time immemorial. Yes, smartphone adoption is up and web traffic from mobile platforms  has been trending up slowly but steadily, but there hasn’t been this massive shift in mobile use/adoption that keeps getting predicted by the technorati.

One of the barriers to QR codes becoming popular instead of just omnipresent is their own usefulness. In a post at Marketing Pilgrim today, Cynthia Boris very rightly points out:

I find that most codes just lead me to a website that I could have arrived at more easily by typing in the URL. Other than that, I’ve been led to a few recipes and some behind the scenes videos for movies. Nothing thrilling and certainly nothing worth sharing.

Factor this in, too, with all those QR codes you see posted in subway tunnels and other places where they can’t actually be scanned.

The second barrier? It’s that there’s no smartphone I can think of that has a QR scanner built into its native camera app. Change that – give me a toggle that lets me switch between the normal camera and an ‘augmented reality mode’** and you’ll see the engagement with these marketing strategies skyrocket.

As it stands right now, I take a picture of the QR code at the top of this post with my iPhone and it…takes a picture of the code. As with most instances of QR codes in the wild, there’s no instructions, no recommendation to download QR Reader or RedLaser or whatever, not even an intimation of what will happen when you scan the code (which, well, don’t worry about that, because it’s not going to be interesting or useful). The ideal interaction with QR or AR is supposed to be quick and simple and we’ve made it a pain in the ass. If we were talking about an augmented reality interaction as if it were a sale, we’d be looking at a conversion funnel that has way too many unnecessary steps.

When it comes to rich media and augmented reality, marketers need to stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen. Instead of just vomiting out new things either because we can or because our personal echo chamber full of other marketers and tech-savvy hypersharers thinks it’s amazing. Make something valuable instead of something cool.

Those AR-animated holiday Starbucks cups? They’re completely lacking in value. At least they had the good sense to integrate the viewer into the Starbucks app that everybody is already using when they enter a store, the one they use to pay for their coffee.

It’s not about cartoony faux-interactivity or racking up pageviews; it’s about providing convenience and value (the things that create engagement).

Am I wrong? Anybody out there love QR codes and find them useful?


*I hate this term so much, and the quotes here are ‘sarcastiquotes’.

** Of course, with virtually every mobile provider choking off unfettered access to data, this becomes double impractical.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

April January 9, 2012 at 5:39 pm

I have once found an instance where I actually liked having QR codes on a item: plants. I tend to look for seasonal sales as a way of affordably landscaping our yard, and buy lots of plants at once. Most care instructions give minimal information, so if you want more information than name, sun/shade and soil/watering, you’re stuck looking up botanical names and trying to sort out which particular hybrid variant you have.

Last year, we found that one of the nurseries we bought our plants from included QR codes on the tags, which led you directly to detailed information on that specific variety.

I generally agree with you that it’s an overhyped idea most people don’t find useful.

Natasha January 9, 2012 at 5:51 pm

Add to the list of improbable locations for QR codes a sign on the side of a four-lane, heavily traveled road with no pedestrian walkways in a city that fines its drivers for using cell phones while operating motor vehicles.

I also saw one on a person’s website in their “about me” section. Seriously, people.

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