The Argument for 2D Barcode Best Practices

In today's issue of AdAge CMO Strategy, an article was published by Dave Wieneke entitled, "Why Marketers Shouldn't Waste Their Time With QR Codes." Here's my reply.

In the article, Mr. Wieneke states, "QR codes can actually impede the conversation. First, you [marketers] have to assume not everyone knows what they are, so you have to explain how they work. Then, you just hope people are willing to download the app and go through the hassle of getting it to work. Then and only then will they be exposed to whatever brilliant website you have put together. And the majority of the time, this process neglects the critical issue of why someone would want to do any of this in the first place. Right now the answer to that seems to be, 'Because marketers thinks it's cool.'" When the Internet was starting to become mainstream, didn't marketers have to make certain assumptions when they thought to display a corporate URL for the first time? When email became a viable marketing channel, didn't marketers have to make certain assumptions as to how consumers would react to an electronic direct mail piece? When a company develops and launches a new app, don't marketers have to make certain assumptions as to why "someone would want to do any of this in the first place" (i.e, download an app)?

My answer to all of this is that if a marketer is able to develop and implement a 2D-based campaign in accordance with best practices (yes, they have been established) then, I believe, much of this argument goes away and use of the technology becomes very worthwhile for the marketer, as well as the consumer.

Mr. Wieneke states, "We've seen them everywhere -- bathroom walls, billboards and rub-on tattoos -- tossed like digital spaghetti against a wall in hopes that some of it will stick, or click, to an ad. Overuse of a new technique is nothing new." To that, I would say look at most any out-of-home signage, in-store signage, event signage, print magazine, etc., and the vast majority of advertisements found in these channels/mediums do not feature a 2D barcode. That said, I would be hard pressed to believe that there is an "overuse" of the technology. Yes, there might be a great deal of hope on the part of a marketer that "some of it will stick" but, here too, if best practices were adhered to there would be a lot less need for hope and wishful thinking.

"Much is promised. Little is delivered." says Mr. Wieneke, as he goes on to mention last year's Calvin Klein QR Code campaign, and I would agree, in part. Yes, many companies let consumers down with poorly constructed and executed 2D campaigns, but (I'm afraid I'm starting to sound like a broken record) if best practices were paid attention to and made use of then just as much would be delivered as would be promised.

By now, I believe you can get a sense that I do not agree with Mr. Wieneke's assessment of 2D barcode technology and its lack of usefulness as a strategic and/or tactical marketing element. Instead of simply stating marketers shouldn't waste their time with QR Codes, what should be said is that, as with most any other form of marketing (i.e., direct mail, telemarketing, email, event, banner ads, landing pages, web, mobile, etc.), best practices have been established and, for those marketers who do not wish to waste marketing/creative time, money and energy, they should be paid attention to.

Lastly, why does Mr. Wieneke, and others, try to make it seem as though 2D technology has to be a zero-sum game? 2D technology exists and it works. If marketers want to use 2D let them. If marketers want to use NFC, RFID, visual search, watermarking, or any other technology, let them. As I and others have said before, 2D is merely one tool in the marketer's kit to drive consumer interaction, engagement and sales. It's not an end all and be all, and was never intended to be.


  1. AnonymousJune 09, 2011

    I'll suggest an alternate explanation.

    Marketers have no interest in leading or creating new solutions. They want to tap into existing customer habits.

    Marketers didn't invent or build the internet. Many years after the internet was established and used heavily by consumers did they start putting corporate URLs on print materials or turning television ads into a call to action to go to the internet. Why? Because consumers eyeballs were already over on the internet. Marketers were following consumers, not leading them.

    Outside of Japan no one has made QR codes easy for consumers to broadly adopt and there has been no significant efforts to educate consumers, other than the money Microsoft seem to have spent. Now, we're expecting marketers to come along and do the heavy lifting?

    It won't happen. Wieneke isn't alone.

    Marketers have no vested interest in growing the QR industry which means they'd rather forget about it at this point.

    Marketers do want to connect with people from packages, print and location to their mobile. They'll find methods to do that that don't require either the marketer or the consumer to work so hard.

    While 2D is merely one tool, to do it well costs money. Other than Microsoft campaigns I don't see much money being applied to these campaigns? They seem like afterthoughts and self-fulfilling prophecies of doom.

    I'm sorry but I don't believe "best practices" are going to breath life into QR campaigns at this point. The time to have done that was a year ago.

  2. Anonymous: Thank you for the comments.

    When you say, "Marketers have no interest in leading or creating new solutions. They want to tap into existing customer habits." I believe is a pretty general statement and does not cover every marketer out there. I believe there are plenty of marketers and marketing/customer driven companies that would like to take the lead and create new solutions and not just tap into existing customer habits. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking of a McDonalds, Amazon, Zappos, Ritz Carlton, FedEx, mobile check deposit/banking, Groupon, etc.

    With respect to 2D costing money, sure it does but, what form of marketing doesn't? Web, mobile, email, direct mail, events, PR, advertising, telemarketing, television, out of home, etc., they all have a cost. Whether or not a company chooses to invest marketing dollars wisely, however, is a whole other issue.

    "Marketers have no vested interest in growing the QR industry which means they'd rather forget about it at this point." Not sure I understand that comment either. Since when would a marketer have a vested interest in growing any industry outside of the one for which they work? I don't believe a marketer says, let's do a series of email campaigns so we can generate money for a company like Constant Contact. Or, let's do some direct mail this year, because the USPS is hurting for business.

    Whether or not you believe we are still in the early stage of this technology, as I and others do, my thought is that if best practices are adhered to it can only help in long term consumer acceptance and adoption of the technology.

  3. AnonymousJune 09, 2011

    If you look at the Pass/Fail ratio on this site you'll see that the past year has most often failed the consumer.

    What that means is that it's a salvage-job if you want to make up for the past year's failures and make a second effort to secure consumer acceptance, which is now 10x harder than it was a year ago (once burned, alternative technologies, and on and on).

    I don't think it's possible.

    I'm not sure best practices will turn it around. Massive rewards at the end of the scan are the only way to overcome the hum-drum and generally poor experiences that QR is now equated with.

    If you dangle a large enough carrot, people will figure out how to try to reach it without any prompting and they may even forget the past year as well.

  4. Great feedback Roger. This was my response to Dave...

    You bring up some valid points, but i tend to disagree. There are still issues that need to be addressed before QR codes become mainstream, but I believe we are witnessing only the beginning of an emerging trend that will become another weapon in mobile marketing's arsenal.

    In order for QR codes to gain mass appeal, I believe there are a few X-factors that need to happen.

    1. Choose one format and eliminate the fight for market share. Microsoft tags, Jag Tags, EZ codes (Scanlife), even at&t. These companies, as well as a handful more, all have proprietary codes that require the consumer to download their company's app in order to scan them. Grab a People Magazine off the shelf, browse through it, and you will see exactly what I mean. It's a scattered mess of call to actions that essentially require the consumer to perform the same action, but ask that you do this with 4 or more different applications. Absolutely ridiculous! Stop confusing the consumer. The struggle to capture market share is affecting the industry as a whole. If we were to simply adopt QR codes as the primary format, there would be less clutter and more clarity for marketers and consumers alike.

    2. Education, education, education. This applies to the marketers down to the consumer. Too many times, I have seen an ad with a 2d bar code call to action with no instructions on what it is or how to use it. Simple instructions for scanning the bar code should ALWAYS be included in the ad. ALWAYS

    3. Better marketing. A 2d bar code is simply an additional entry point. The same way SMS, IVR, or an online capture form would be used to send the consumer to a destination. The destination point is the CRITICAL aspect. Where and what are you leading the consumer to? Is it relevant to the ad? Does it hold value? Is the content optimized to fit on all mobile device screens? And so on.

    Looking at the big picture, these are issues that I feel should be addressed, but shouldn't affect the momentum of 2d bar code implementation and acceptance in this country. Look at the stats, look at the usage, and read the case studies. All arrows point up. Utilizing 2d bar code technology is cost effective, its gaining poularity, and it's generating results when done properly. Although bar code capabilities are only available to those with smart phones, pay attention to the trends. In the not so distant future, most end users will be carrying a smart phone in their hands. It is inevitable, and it's time to eliminate the clutter (i.e. snap a photo and send it in via email. I understand that you are able to reach more users due to the lack of smartphones currently in customers hands, but if that's the case, use SMS as your call to action. It has the widest reach, and can be accompanied next to a QR code as an additional option for entry.

    Lose the clutter, educate the marketer and the consumer, and focus on the word MARKETING in mobile marketing. BOOM! You've got a winner.

    Mark Wenzowski
    CELLGHOST Mobile

  5. Anonymous:

    Yes, the pass/fail ratio skews to fail, but since the majority of consumers still do not have a smartphone and, as a result, yet to interact with a 2D code, I believe all is not lost and the technology still stands a chance to succeed. Succeed only when best practices are adhered to.

  6. Matthias: Thank you for the support.

  7. Mark: Brilliant. I agree.

  8. AnonymousJune 10, 2011

    Roger: Things to consider, if the aggressive early-adopters of smartphones (those who have them today) are not scanning codes in any significant numbers what indication is there that the second wave of smartphone owners will? Counting on late-adopters to grow QR usage seems hazardous.

    "Best practices" are a great thing, no argument there, but without some giant carrot at the end of the rainbow (or whatever mixed metaphor suits the day), i.e. some great reward for scanning, I do not see QR going mainstream. Something failed this past year and overcoming that will take more than education. It demands high value rewards.

    Mark W: You are correct but we all know that your point #1 won't happen. No one is going to shut down their proprietary format for the benefit of All. In terms of point #2, my belief is that Wieneke's AdAge article points to the disconnect here. Marketers wanted someone else to educate the public, then they will happily ride the bandwagon. Marketers don't want to make consumers jump through hoops and they always want to take the path of least resistance. They will walk away, rather than educate. Weineke isn't alone.

    If two of the three "what's needed" bullet points aren't achieved can the third overcome the present lackluster greeting QR codes are receiving? I'm sure someone will argue with the phrase "lackluster," but show me one campaign during this high growth period of the past year (smartphone growth and an exponential growth in use of codes) that's received big numbers in terms of scans? One? Just one? Anyone?

    If QR is all "long-tail," without the dog to wag it, it won't get very far. High value (the "dog" i.e. "big carrot") QR campaigns need to anchor the long-tail and drive this forward. YouTube succeeded because it had high volume viral videos that could support the long-tail of low consumption videos. Where's the equivalent in QR of viral?

  9. Not all QRs are born/delivered equal. The religion may be kind, but it's up to the priests at the end of the day.

    For every QR best practice effort out there, there are probably 2 counter-effort existing as well. Freebies tend to get spoiled if they are equally accessible to the enlightened and under-enlightened.

    Our experience says that QR works better in serving recurring old customers than in recruiting new customers. But that certainly excludes many QR-hopeful businesses today.