Death To The QR Code - A Response

On Business Insider, Dan Frommer wrote an article titled "Death To The QR Code." I have a couple of comments and questions for Mr. Frommer. Below is his article with my comments and questions in italics. I apologize for the length of the post.

DF: "Over the past few years, "QR codes" -- those square, mobile barcodes -- have started to show up in some U.S. advertising. Enough already. While QR codes are cute and novel, and may be big in Japan, they're not the future of advertising here. So it's time to drop them. Even Google is." 

2DBS: Why is it enough already, because companies and consumers are just starting to understand and adopt to the technology? Sure there may be some bumps along the way, and advertisers still need to figure things out to make the 2D/QR barcode experience meaningful for the consumer, as well as themselves, but I am quite certain that it was not all smooth sailing for advertisers and consumers alike when radio, television, the Internet, email, etc., were first used for advertising and promotional purposes. Also, just because Google decides to focus on other technologies that means we all have to follow suit and think the same way. Sounds a bit myopic.

DF: "For the uninitiated, mobile barcodes work with the camera in your smartphone, and generally tell your phone to take you to a web address. You take a picture of the barcode, and the barcode reader software does its thing. In theory, they are supposed to be a shortcut, so you don't have to type anything in."

2DBS: For the uninitiated, there is no picture taking with respect to using 2D/QR technology. One merely launches the code reader app on their phone and then aims their phone's camera over the code. No snapping involved. Once a code reader app is installed on the phone, the process of scanning a code is all but one step or keystroke...touch the code reader app icon. That's it. Show me any URL, short or long, that is more of a short cut.

DF: "But in practice, they don't often work out that way. Mobile barcodes can be confusing and can waste time. And as mobile technology progresses, they probably aren't even necessary." 

2DBS: Most often, the only time that codes don't work the way they were intended is when the advertiser has not fully thought through a 2D/QR code strategy and/or made use of best practices. Also, barcodes are only as confusing as an advertiser wants to make them. If an advertiser chooses not to explain and help educate the public on codes then, yes, they will be confusing. But, if the opposite happens, watch how fast the market then catches on.

DF: "Most people, before scanning their first barcode, have to download scanning apps manually and figure out how to use them. Then, each time there's a barcode to scan, they have to make sure they're using the right scanning app for the right barcode. That's because different types of barcodes, like Microsoft's "Tag" codes, don't always work in all the same apps. And then there are the inevitable delays in finding the barcode app in your phone, waiting for the camera to prepare itself to shoot photos, getting the right distance and focus on the barcode, and hoping the mobile data network responds to your query quickly enough to be worthwhile. That's just on the user's end." 

2DBS: Most people don't have many of the apps/games they use pre-loaded on their smartphone. So, what point are you trying to make? That it takes a few minutes to go to one of the app markets, search for a code reader app and then download it. Most people don't know how to use an app or play a game the first time either, but they quickly learn. With respect to knowing which reader app to use, it only needs to be as confusing as the advertiser wants to make it (i.e., they either work to explain or they don't). Currently, there are only two primary code types in the U.S. market, QR Code and Microsoft Tag, for consumers to contend with. Does not seem so insurmountable to me. In regard to the "inevitable delays in finding the barcode app in your phone" why not give people some credit. I would like to believe that most people know where they store certain, if not all, of their apps. Please.

DF: "Then there's the complexity of creating and managing mobile barcodes on the advertiser's end. And making sure different types of phones get the right kind of content. And the space the barcode takes up in the ad. And the decision about how much space in the ad to devote to instructing people what to do with the barcode, etc. By that time, you've spent more time teaching people what to do with the barcode than the time they'd spend doing whatever it is you want them to do. All that for what? Never mind the advertisers who have been putting QR codes on their ads underground -- such as on the NYC subway -- where there is no Internet connectivity at all."

2DBS: With a little planning and knowledge, many of these issues become non-issues; let's not blow them out of proportion. There are applications and companies that can help to optimize scan resolve content based on the device being used to scan the code. The space the barcode takes up need not be much more than one inch square. The space the instructions take are but two or three lines of copy, which can be in footnote size under or next to the code. With respect to placing codes in Internet dead zones, all an advertiser needs to do is get a handle on best practices.

DF: "So, what could be better? There are several options. The simplest could be just to ask people to do what the barcode was going to take them to, anyway. "Go to Facebook.com/mybrand." Or "follow us on Twitter." Or "find our closest store on Google Maps." Or "download the MyBrand app from the app store." That sort of stuff isn't actually very tricky to type in. If you insist, you can even use a custom short URL for each ad placement, and that can get you some of the traffic measurement tools you were (theoretically) going to use mobile barcodes for. But, remember: The easier this is for people, the better -- and the more likely it's going to work." 

2DBS: Last I checked, many companies do not have an intuitive URL address for their Facebook and/or Twitter page, and the typing in of a URL, short or long, becomes that many more keystrokes than what 2D/QR requires (see comment above).

DF: "If you're going to ask people to photograph something, you might as well just let them photograph the whole thing. Image recognition is getting good enough -- and servers fast enough, and apps smart enough -- to recognize the whole thing you're taking a picture of, instead of asking someone just to zoom in on a barcode. Even if that "whole thing" is an ad. For example, a recent Buick magazine ad encourages people to use the Google app's "Goggles" feature for iPhone or Android to photograph the entire ad to "unlock" its interactive features. In our informal test, it worked quickly, on our first try -- in low light. Perhaps Google will roll this out broadly." 

2DBS: There's that word photograph again. No photo necessary with QR Codes. Yes, image recognition is here as a technology to consider and use, but what's so very different than QR? A consumer has to find the appropriate app, launch it, scan the image and then wait to see the scan resolve. The steps are identical. In an informal test that I took using Digimarc image recognition technology none of the whole picture scans I took worked the first time, but they did the second time. So, who's to say what works and what doesn't work and why?

DF: "And in the future, if "near-field communication" mobile technology takes off, you may be able to just bump your phone up against a sensor to tell it to do something, whether it be to check you into a bar on Foursquare, take you to a website, or even pay for dinner. That's faster and easier than a barcode, too." 

2DBS: Okay, so NFC does take off, what does that mean? Advertisers are still going to have to explain to consumers how the technology works. I sure hope they can find the space in their ads to do so. And, while I am not an expert on NFC, a question I have is, how can a NFC chip be reprogrammed? For example, say a Google Places NFC chip directs a consumer to a certain URL but, in time, the advertiser wants to change the URL to something totally different. How is this accomplished? With QR Codes the code can be reprogrammed on the back end with relative ease.

DF: "Big picture: Yes, obviously, barcodes have a place in the world. They are simple and cheap for commerce and logistics, and barcodes are widespread. There are cool consumer experiments where people use QR mobile barcodes for shopping in virtual supermarkets in Korean subway stations. And for now, they seem to be a novelty for some U.S. advertisers." 

2DBS: You are either for us or against us. You are either for 2D/QR or against 2D/QR? Mr.  Frommer, it sounds like you are hedging your bet here. As with any and all marketing related applications and/or technologies, they are not for everyone and they are not for every situation. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, strengths and weaknesses, plus and minuses, and it is up to the marketer/creative to figure this out.

DF: "But as far as the future of advertising goes, particularly in the U.S., it's hard to see them really taking off. Their utility hasn't yet made up for their awkwardness."

2DBS: I said it once and I'll say it again, 2D/QR barcodes need only to be as awkward as an advertiser chooses to make them. By paying close attention to best practices and testing prior to launch, advertisers and consumers will do just fine by 2D/QR technology. Lastly, who's to say what the future of advertising holds. In the early 1990s, did companies really know what to make of the Internet? No. Does it make sense to try and out guess the market? No. But a company certainly wants to spend the time and energy to stay current on things and know what options are available to them.


  1. I have deja vu - I could have sworn I'd seen this 'Death of' post before. Mr. Frommer does come across as very negative, almost as if he was asked to write this on a bad day at work. Rather than objective commentary, his opinion piece comes across as extreme pessimism.

  2. Steve: Thank you for the comment. The greatest take away for me from articles like this is, how good are these people as marketers when they come across as being very near-sighted or not as open to testing and experimenting? It's almost as if they were looking for an argument. Have a good weekend.

  3. AnonymousJuly 08, 2011

    Pessimism is a natural response to the past year with regard to QR and 2D codes in advertising. Go through the archives of this blog, it's not an encouraging picture that's emerged.

    Mobile devices that are QR capable are selling like proverbial hotcakes. Codes are everywhere. We've crossed the tipping point in terms of ecosystem.

    But scanning hasn't caught the imagination of the public. No one has generated a "must scan" campaign. Until that happens, barcodes will continue to be questioned with regard to their value. Pessimism will deepen.

    With regard to your NFC limitation, that is something that is easily addressed in the set up. But NFC is a year away from mass user adoption and NFC can't travel through print (though with a conceptual price drop to 1-cent or less, they could be used on inserts).

    If there is not a major, hugely successful QR campaign within the next six months we will start seeing QR fade away and pessimism will become the standard point of view.

    The larger, funded or cash rich barcode companies could be far more pro-active in establishing consumer interest and demand (don't wait for ad agencies to do this for you, it isn't their job). Only Microsoft's team have demonstrated dedicated efforts in this regard, everyone else just seems to be hawking codes and crossing their fingers that people will start scanning someday.

  4. Roger, thank you for the point-by-point analysis. I have two additional thoughts:

    1. With the exception of a few errors, Mr. Frommer's article--if framed with a more open mind--could just as easily be an examination of the potential for 2D barcodes. Because what he's doing is highlighting many opportunities for improvement--many of which you've been discussing from the beginning. I guess it's a fine line between diagnosing an impending death and diagnosing the path to long-term health!

    2. I appreciate that Mr. Frommer's analysis and your rebuttal are focused on advertising. But it's worth noting that there are many, many other practical uses for 2D barcodes beyond advertising. The other uses are valuable in their own right. But also, it's possible that the utility of 2D barcodes for other purposes will eventually "lift all boats"--including advertising.

    Thank you!

  5. Joseph: Thank you for the comments, which make sense. One could easily turn the argument upside down and get ideas of where to make improvements or to learn of the potential.

    The faster companies recognize and make use of best practices, the faster consumers will adopt, the faster everyone wins. So, yes, a rising tide does raise all ships.

  6. So Dan Frommer thinks QR Codes are cool in the Korean Subway virtual supermarkets, but not when used on an ad in the NY subway?

    Maybe the QR Codes aren't the problem. Aren't websites routinely listed on subway ads? Perhaps using that step of actually "snapping a picture" of QR codes in a location where wifi, 3G or other networks are unavailable is an answer. Then check it later with a scanner that can detect a QR code in a photo.

    It seems that one can have a negative outlook on anything if they choose. Too bad that Mr Frommer and other doubters will be missing out on the fun that QR Codes can be!

  7. I read the Death To The QR Code post. Well actually that's a lie, I skimmed it, then I went and put shelves up in the shed. I felt bad about spending a day shelving a garage but I would have felt much worse about taking too much notice of Dan Frommer.

    I did in passing wonder why he had invested so much time in writing negatively about something but hey.

    I don't particularly want to shop in a Korean virtual Tesco's but I find it interesting that one could. I amy well use the poster in my local rail station though to access a timetable.

    I am interested that people use the codes on my commercial property customer's street advertising to access the websites that I have designed for them.

    In some ways I am concerned about his comments about Google, but only because I don't like it when one company excludes alternative technologies as a route to dominance.

    There is little doubt that QR will have a shelf life, but for now QR codes offer a wealth of opportunity for those of us trying to develop integrated solutions to our customers.

    As the saying goes, "reports of (QR's) death are greatly exaggerated."

  8. Thanks to Roger for making a great point-by-point post, I'd hope Mr. Frommer takes notice & could reply in kind.

    As a sort of Devil's advocate, the sad truth is, most of the results of QR campaigns I've seen fall short. Whether it's non-mobile sites, pointless "rewards" or just plain uselessness. I can't fault the process of using a QR, I think much of the failure comes from marketers not being able to wrap their heads around mobile delivery. Which is itself ridiculous, this is not THAT new of an area, it's just laziness at this point.

  9. Hi Roger!

    This post you wrote decided me to finish one I had as a draft for quite a long time.


    Good luck!

  10. Great reply to a 'somewhat' myopic post, thanks Roger.

  11. My first reaction to reading Dan's article was, *Well played.* He certainly stirred up some controversy and got the hits. Seemed more of a shady (lame) drama queen attempt at marketing himself.

    Now to you: *Great article.* You shot him down on every point! This makes me believe even more that he just wrote it for the hell of it.

    I just wanted to mention. I have an iPhone 2g and it sadly only supports ONE QR reader app... and that app requires you take a photograph of the QR code first. It has the shutter effect and everything, but it's a breeze to use. So such apps do exist. I can only imagine what the non-photograph apps are like -- Dan totally exaggerates the complexity of it, and makes me feel like I am incapable of clicking a few buttons. Not cool.

    Look forward to reading more from you. Regards!