11 Reasons Why QR Codes (Don't) Suck

Last week, I read an article written by David Wachs, President of Cellit, titled "11 Reasons Why QR Codes Suck" and thought to respond. To make it easier to compare my comments with Mr. Wachs' reasons, I have listed both below. My comments are listed under 2DBS.

Here’s the article…

So you’ve probably started seeing them: little squares made up of various black and white boxes. You’ve probably seen them on bus shelters, inside of mass transit, or in magazines. You’ve probably also wondered “what the hell is this?” That, my friend, is a 2D bar code. Often called a “QR Code” or a “tag”, it’s the latest way marketing goof-balls are jumping on the “me too” bandwagon in a big way. You see, if you see a QR Code (and actually know what it is) you can download an app on your phone, take a picture of the code and “voila!” you get content. I made a little video about 2D bar codes a few months ago; if you want a little diversion, you can watch it here.

Since I posted that video, I’ve been seeing more and more of them. I realize that advertisers just don’t get it. (My ego took a big hit as well; I thought the Cellit blog was daily reading for all interactive marketers coast-to-coast, and they surely would have seen my video by now!) So, what better way to get the word out is to count down the Top 11 Ways QR Codes Suck. Here we go…

2DBS: In reading the article’s introduction, I'm not even sure where to begin. Are all marketers "goof-balls" if all they want to do is learn about and/or explore the use of a new technology such as QR Codes? While I am not making excuses for companies and agencies that are climbing aboard the "me too" bandwagon and failing to create and execute a QR Code-based strategy or campaign well (i.e., “don’t get it”), I see nothing wrong with companies and agencies trying to make use of something new and different either to create a competitive advantage, add another layer of integration, engage with consumers in a different manner or show themselves as being forward thinking and somewhat innovative.

11. QR Codes make receiving simple content very difficult.
QR Codes are nothing more than a URL encoded in a bar code format. However, to access the URL, the user must download and install a bar code reader, open the reader, take a clear picture of the code, wait for the phone to process the code (which takes 3-5 seconds on my iPhone 4) and then display the content. In my experience with QR Codes, it usually takes me 2 or 3 attempts at taking a photo before the phone recognizes it (if it recognizes the image at all). Obstructions, fog, movement, awkward or distant placement (such as on billboards) all limit their ability to be read. Is your target audience going to jump through these hoops?

2DBS: QR Codes in and of themselves do not make receiving content, simple or otherwise, very difficult. What does make the delivery of content difficult is the advertiser's failure to optimize content for mobile viewing. That's where the real break down occurs. Since mobile is the medium, advertisers must recognize this and build campaigns based on it, as opposed to trying to force a square peg (e.g., desktop content, format, design, etc.) into a round hole (e.g., mobile phone).

With respect to Mr. Wachs' comments about using a code reader app, it’s true an app needs to be downloaded and installed on a smartphone in order for a QR Code to be scanned. Some smartphones, however, are coming pre-loaded with reader apps and this trend will probably continue, thus taking one step out of the equation.

Mr. Wachs mentions that "a clear picture of the code" needs to be taken, but I am at a loss to understand how he makes use of his phone and code reader app. I use 6-8 of the more popular Android-based code reader apps and, because they all auto-detect a code, all I have to do is hold the phone's camera over the code and it will be detected. On the rare occasion, I have to move the camera up or down over the code to bring the code into sharp focus and for it to be detected.

With respect to asking if a target audience is going to "jump through these hoops" I would say that no advertiser is holding a gun to a consumer saying, "Scan my code!" All an advertiser is doing via the use of QR Codes is offering consumers another way to interact and engage with the brand, as well as another way to potentially move further along the purchase decision path.

Lastly, yes, obstructions and distance can make it difficult to properly scan a code, but the advertiser should take this into consideration when developing the strategy/campaign and creative, and work to minimize the possibility. Mr. Wachs please let me and my readers know how much fog must be present in order to prevent a code from being scanned.

10. QR Codes lack strong track-ability compared to text messaging.
As mentioned in #10 above, a QR Code is nothing more than a URL encoded in a very geeky format. As such, the only collectible information is the same information you get from a web hit, which would include URL hit, user agent (in this case, the phone type, but for a desktop environment, it would be the browser of the computer), and time of day of web hit. With a text messaging program (such as a simple “text for a URL” program), you also get the most valuable information out there: the user’s cell phone number!

2DBS: What's really the comment or question here? If it is a matter of collecting phone numbers, email addresses and other bits of prospect/customer data, yes, the QR Code by itself cannot do that. However, if the overall campaign is designed to ask for and collect this type of information then it can be done. Also, Mr. Wachs mentions that "the most valuable information out there" is the user's cell phone number. First, who’s to say this is the most valuable information out there? To me, the most valuable bit of information to know is that a prospect has in some shape or form qualified him/herself for further contact. Second, I assume the mobile phone number only becomes available, and of value, if and when the consumer opts in on the campaign. If a consumer doesn’t then what? Third, there are applications on the market which enable an advertiser to track a consumer past the code scan and on to the website, thus providing richer data.

9. QR Codes lack follow up.
Building on point 10 above, without the phone number, it’s impossible to easily follow up with a user. If the same URL request had been initiated with text messaging, the brand could send a message at a later date to the user (if the user opts in, typically by replying “yes” to a request to opt in). In order to accomplish the same result via 2D bar code, the user would need to fill out a web form, which is more time consuming and will deter the user.

2DBS: This overlaps with item #10, but again I say follow up is a matter of how the campaign is designed, and has little to do with the QR Code itself. Also, to me, this comment speaks to how well a prospect may or may not be qualified. Chances are the prospect will be more qualified if they take the time to fill out a contact form versus just opting into a campaign by checking off a box. Frankly, I would rather have fewer prospects that are more qualified than more prospects that are less qualified.

8. QR Codes require mobile devices to stop being mobile.
When taking a picture of a QR Code you must stand still. In today’s “on the go” world, this might be a very unrealistic thing to ask. For example, currently at O’Hare airport in Chicago, there is a QR Code campaign on the doors that exit the airport. The advertiser (some little company called “Microsoft”) wants you to stop dragging your bags out of the airport and take a picture of the QR Code. (Oh, by the way, you’ll be blocking the exit to the airport by doing so and I can nearly guarantee you’ll be run over by 500 travelers that don’t find QR Codes nearly as interesting as you do). Had Microsoft instead run a “text for info” campaign, the user could simply remember to “text CLOUD to 12345” and do so in the boring cab ride home. (The user would have received the exact same URL link, and Microsoft would have had the added benefit of capturing the user’s cell phone number.) Alternatively, the advert could simply say “visit cloud.com on your phone” which would still keep the line moving at the airport.

2DBS: This reason and Mr. Wachs’ argument here is simply ridiculous. Why, because it has nothing to do with the use of QR Codes and/or texting. What it does have something to do with is location and where an advertiser chooses to place a QR Code-based advertisement. Whoever suggested placing a Microsoft Tag on the exit doors of a busy and crowded airport building doesn't as Mr. Wachs says, "get it," but QR Codes have been placed in other areas of airport terminals with great results.

To the point about "keep the line moving," I am most certain that for every person who stops to scan a code there are that many more texting away on their mobile phones with heads down, thumbs going at it, walking at a snail's pace. Also, it should be noted that a QR Code can be scanned and saved by a code reader app, so that it can be viewed at a later point in time...just to keep the line moving.

7. QR Codes can’t “go viral.”
Cellit has had several text message campaigns “go viral”. That is, word got out on a keyword, and before we knew it, people were blogging, Facebooking and tweeting to text “XYZ to 12345” for a great deal. This simply cannot occur with QR Codes. You can only interact with the QR Code as you’re standing in front of it.

2DBS: Yes, the QR Code itself may not be able to be “go viral” but the scan resolve content certainly can. If a QR Code-based campaign is properly designed and executed it is very easy for a consumer to share scanned content via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, email, etc.

For Mr. Wachs to say, "QR Codes can't go viral" I would point to this campaign, which was widely spoken about across a variety of social networks.

6. QR Codes remove brand association.
With text messaging campaigns, or even simple advertisement of a mobile web site, the brand is included in the message. Ie, text BRAND to 12345 or visit m.brand.com. With QR Codes, no such association exists. Further, when the consumer types in m.brand.com or texts BRAND to 12345, the very act of typing in the brand’s name reinforces its recall in the mind of the consumer. In fact, I have seen a few QR campaigns that have no branding on them whatsoever other than the QR Code.

2DBS: QR Codes can be customized and branded with a logo and/or corporate colors. Whether or not an advertiser chooses to go down this path and have their code(s) tied into their overall brand standards is another story.

With respect to typing and texting, etc., one of the great advantages of using QR Codes is that they save on keystrokes and keystroke error, especially when a long or non-intuitive URL is being used.

5. QR Codes only work on smartphones with cameras.
Only 45% of the US population currently has a smart phone. While this number is projected to explode in the next two years, it is not clear why a marketer would opt out of communicating with a larger demographic via text or simply mentioning a mobile URL. With text-based campaigns, Cellit can deliver unique URLs, and track their open rate. If the URL is not opened, our system “falls back” to delivering information via text only. There is no “fall back” for QR Codes.

2DBS: From a best practice perspective, advertisers should provide the consumer with the option of either scanning the QR Code or texting to see the same content. This way, the advertiser is not segmenting the potential audience between smartphone and non-smartphone users, and they are also providing a "fall back" for the code.

In regard to the number of smartphones on the market, if this number is forecasted to increase from month to month, year to year, why not continue to make use of a technology that works on the platform? It's not as if the reverse is happening and smartphones are going the way of the Dodo. 

4. QR Codes take up a lot of space.
Unlike a URL or even “text WORD to 12345”, QR Codes, to be effective, must take up a large portion of a billboard or other outdoor display. (QR codes can be much smaller for in-book pieces in magazines).

2DBS: Yes, in order for a QR Code to work properly there is a certain size requirement, but if a campaign is created with this in mind, from the onset, then placement/display of the code should not be an issue. Depending on the medium (billboard, magazine, etc.) it may or may not be appropriate to make use of a QR Code. This all speaks to creative design and preference. Also, how much space something takes up is relative, so what Mr. Wachs believes may take up a great deal of space, others may not.

3. There is no standard for 2D Bar Codes.
While PDF 417 (the “QR Code”) is the dominant format for 2D bar codes, other formats also exist, such as the Microsoft “Tag” or the Scanlife format. These additional formats create confusion, and often require the user to have multiple scanning apps downloaded on their phone to participate in 2D bar code campaigns.

2DBS: Reason #3 gets a bit off track, and really holds no water. First, let's not confuse the issue. 2D barcode is an umbrella term used to describe a wide variety of open source and proprietary two-dimensional or matrix barcodes and, under this term, one can find the QR Code. Second, the standard for the QR Code is the QR Code, not PDF 417, which is really the name for a stacked bar code. Third, Mr. Wachs is correct, there is no standard for 2D barcodes, but who says there has to be? Currently, there are two main 2D barcodes on the market, QR Code and Microsoft Tag. Each requires their own code reader app and each look totally different than the other. In time, consumers will learn the differences between the two and know which code reader app to use. Two apps, what’s so difficult? Last I checked I have more than two apps to access financial news, technology news, the weather/marine forecast, etc.

Everyone wants to pin the argument of multiple codes and apps to a consumer’s very first use and occurrence, where, of course, there will be some confusion while getting used to the codes, process, apps, etc. In time, however, this will change as consumers get more on board with the technology.

2. You can’t use QR Codes in television or radio.
Obviously, you can’t use QR Codes in radio, but you also can’t practically use them on television. You would need to leave the bar code on screen for a substantial amount of time (enough time for the user to get out their phone, locate the app on their phone if it exists, or download it if it doesn’t), run the app, focus on the bar code and snap a picture. This could easily take 45 seconds or longer to occur. One of the benefits of mobile campaigns is the ability to judge the relative effectiveness of media (by tagging various ads with different keyword tags). If you can’t measure radio and television, your usage is substantially limited.

And last but not least…

2DBS: Last I checked, you couldn't use email on the radio as well, but that's beside the point. With respect to using QR Codes on television, yes, they can be used as Mr. Wachs describes. Is it an effective or efficient placement of a code? No, probably not, and this is when I would point back to strategy or campaign design and execution.

1. People don’t know what QR Codes are!
Most importantly, by and large, most people simply don’t even know the purpose of a QR Code or what to do with it. Recently, I was flying back to Chicago and had the privilege of sitting next to two 22-year-old women. A marketer would imagine that these women (who grew up with cell phones practically since birth!) would be able to identify and use a QR Code. However, when I showed them a few on some business cards I had collected at (surprise!) an interactive marketing event, neither woman had the faintest clue what they were or what to do with them. These women are not alone. In fact, nearly every person I know who does not work in marketing or for a cell phone technology company has no idea what these codes mean. On the flip side, text messaging has a penetration rate approaching 80%.

2DBS: Okay, we get it; Mr. Wachs likes (loves) text messaging, but let's talk about the subject of people not knowing what QR Codes are. When radio came out, did everyone in the country, let alone the world, instantly know what the technology was? No. When television came out, did everyone know? No. With the Internet? No. With mobile phones? No. Etc., etc. It takes time for new technology to reach the masses and for the masses to fully understand and accept it. As fast as our society operates these days, plenty of things still don't happen overnight and there is no reason for us to expect otherwise.

I truly hope this list has convinced you that QR Codes are typically not the solution for your mobile marketing campaign. While I have listed eleven reasons here, the simplest answer is: why make something harder than it needs to be! Use text messaging or advertise a URL. The QR Code is simply “marketing to marketers”!

2DBS: I truly hope this list has convinced you that Mr. Wachs' view of QR Codes is very simplistic and somewhat off base. Bottom line...QR Codes are merely another means by which advertisers can connect with consumers, period. No one is forcing a consumer to download a code reader app and scan until the cows come home, just like no one is forcing a consumer to call a telephone number, click on a banner ad, reply to a piece of direct mail, or respond to a television commercial. Yet, these are all other means by which an advertiser communicates and provides information to consumers.

QR Codes should not be viewed as "the solution for your mobile marketing campaign," because QR Codes by themselves mean very little.  When QR Codes are incorporated into a comprehensive, integrated marketing strategy that is well thought out and executed they can be extremely effective and efficient.


  1. It's pretty simple, most of the larger, established mobile marketing companies have a little cash-cow called SMS. They've developed platforms and solutions over the past 5+ years around SMS and they derive significant revenue from it. It takes little work and the volume has provided lucrative revenues.

    Along come "Apps." Along comes mobile web (with it's sidekick QR/2D codes) and that SMS cash-cow is threatened to become hamburger meat.

    Many Mobile Marketers who've been around for awhile and who have great brand relationships are doing everything they can to keep that cow alive as long as possible. And, like with politics, they are engaging in character assassination as part of the game.

    Wach's is doing what any good CEO would do -- tell everyone to stick with his company (and, their SMS solutions) and to ignore those bringing innovative solutions to the marketplace.

    SMS is under threat. They're fighting back. But, it's a losing battle. SMS will wane as a marketing tool. It's boring and has zero sex appeal. It's day is over. Off to the abattoir with 'ya.

  2. Great rebuttal! Sounds like Mr. Wach's sells texting services! Otherwise, he would realize that there is room for both texting and mobile codes. Quite often they serve different purposes. QR codes are more fun!

  3. Oh look, the President of Cellit doesn't like 'rival' tech :)

    Instead of spending all your time thinking of ways to trash 2D codes, why don't you, Mr Wachs, spend your time working on a 'ground breaking' (your words) way to integrate this popular new tech?

    On a side note, I would much rather involve myself with marketing that DOESN'T immediately try to get my phone number - big turn off.

  4. Anonymous, Stephanie, Steve - Thank you for your comments.

  5. if the great majority of consumers will continue to use feature phones, then there's a future for SMS. SMS is a technique designed for phones without internet connections. But if the world, and particularly the U.S., is rapidly adopting phones that are essentially mobile computers, then SMS is on the verge of becoming obsolete. If you as a marketer or advertiser believe feature phones are the future, by all means invest in SMS. But the proliferation of smart phones and by extension the dwindling of feature phones means that SMS's time is already past. Somebody's ox is going to get gored in this process and it sounds like Mr. Wach is already feeling the pain.

  6. Boy, did you ever do a good job breaking down his argument against QR codes. He should thank you for setting him straight.

    What he fails to mention is that there are pros and cons to every marketing strategy, and each one has its place in an overall strategy. Like any new technology, it takes a certain period of time for the majority of the population to catch on, and these days that's not going to take very long. Every phone will soon be able to detect QR codes easily and automatically.

    Judging from some of the lame points he makes, I wonder if he wrote an article 10 years ago called: 11 Reasons Why PDF Files Suck

  7. Hi Roger, I also added my take on this post this evening... I wasn't sure that they would allow my comment on the official blog, so I posted on this link, http://tourismlearningcenter.com/qr-codes/11-reasons-why-qr-codes-suck/

    Best, Paul

  8. Wow, thanks for this smart, level-headed response to the Cellit piece. Wachs's piece read as if he had finally found a socially acceptable scapegoat (QR codes) for a hatred of the marketers and advertisers who comprise his customer base.

  9. Paul: Thank you for the additional comments, as I seemed to have left off a few points.

  10. Chicago Attorneys: Thank you for the comments. Totally agree, different campaigns call for different strategies and tactics, no one strategy and/or tactic will work for all.

  11. I like where you said " you cant use email over radio either "

    Patrick, QrArts.com

  12. Patrick: Thank you for reading...let's be real...no one says QR or 2D barcodes are the end all and be all. They are merely another tool in the marketer's belt by which a message can be sent to a consumer and an interaction can start.

  13. AnonymousJune 27, 2011

    I'm with you on 2-D barcodes over text message marketing. I will STOP buying any product that sends me a text message. I find that way too invasive, kind of like having my ass grabbed randomly in a bar. I would much rather scan a barcode and see something fun on my phone and then be asked to opt in to an e-newsletter campaign. If I want what you have, I'll buy it. If not, pestering me won't help.