The Uncertain Future of the QR Code

(The article below is today's cover story on iMediaConnection. I post it here in case you missed the other.)

Over the past 18-24 months, the acceptance and use of Quick Response (QR) codes has steadily increased among marketing and creative professionals, as well as individual and business consumers, but the question remains, what's the future of QR codes? Will the future show that QR codes were just a passing advertising fad -- here today, gone tomorrow? Or, will the future show that QR codes were a viable direct response mechanism that marketers can use to engage and interact with a target audience on a permission-based, personal level?

As a marketing strategist, my answer to the question "what's the future of QR codes" is probably much different than how a technologist, developer, creative professional, or futurist might respond, but I believe it is justified and has merit. Ask the question to this group and they might all begin to talk about the next version of QR code technology (e.g., QR code 3.0) and what that might be like and how that might work, or they might talk about other technologies -- such as near field communication (NFC), augmented reality, digital watermarks, or image recognition -- and how technologies such as these will be the death knell for QR codes, let alone other 2D barcode types. But, if the question is asked of me, I believe the future of QR codes really lies in the response companies may give when they themselves are asked, "What are your future strategic marketing goals and objectives?" Probably not what you were expecting to hear was it? Please allow me to explain.

First, let me give you my definition of a QR code. A QR code is a tactical direct response mechanism used in marketing, advertising, and promotion which, upon scanning, enables consumers to bridge the gap between the physical and print world and the digital world and back again. By nature of the technology, QR codes provide for a relatively instantaneous interactive experience between a consumer and a product, service and, brand. The key to enabling the use of QR codes, by an advertiser or a consumer, is a smartphone installed with a QR code reader app. Please read that last line again and keep it in mind as you read the remainder of the article.

When companies begin to consider the use of QR codes for advertising, promotion, or general business purposes, the majority seem to ask the same simple question: Do we want to use QR codes or not in our next campaign? But the real question to be asked is, "As a company, do we want to advance and enhance our integrated marketing strategy, as well as the goals and objectives which go along with it, to the point that the strategy includes an investment in and commitment to a mobile channel or platform?" If the answer from one company to the next is "yes," then QR codes will have a future. If the answer from one company to the next is "no" then QR codes won't have much of a future. Because QR code technology is based on a mobile platform and the use of smartphones (see definition above), it is essential for companies to first understand, believe in, embrace, and make use of a mobile strategy, before they try to understand, believe in, embrace, and make use of QR codes on a tactical level. Think strategic before tactical -- it's that simple.

In the research that I have conducted, where I have analyzed literally hundreds of QR code-based campaigns, a major mistake that advertisers seem to make is the belief that deploying a QR code in an advertisement is a strategy in and of itself. In reality, this is the furthest from the truth, because a QR code is only one tactical element in an advertisement along with many others. What's often missing from an advertiser's way of thinking about QR codes is that in order for them to be used in a proper and effective manner, it takes -- first and foremost -- an investment and commitment by the company in a mobile channel or platform. Actually, it's probably due to this "strategy" (i.e., QR codes before mobile channel or platform; tactic before strategy) that causes a campaign to fail miserably and, as a result, the thought to use QR codes in the future is sidelined or shelved indefinitely. This might be why, from one advertiser to the next, we see them use QR codes only once and never again. If it were the other way around, where companies consider the mobile channel or platform first and then QR codes (i.e., strategy before tactic) then, I believe, campaigns would be far more successful and effective, and QR codes would be used by companies on a regular or full-time basis.

To view the future of QR codes in this manner (i.e., strategic marketing goals and objectives versus pure technology) hopefully sheds light on what it takes for a company to develop and deploy an effective, value-driven, consumer-oriented, QR code-based advertisement or campaign. It all begins with the mobile channel or platform and then building from that as a foundation. Next, it becomes a matter of understanding, as well as requiring, the development of mobile-optimized content. When I mention mobile-optimized content, I am referring to it being optimized for use on the mobile web, as well as optimized for the type of mobile device that may be used, either by operating system or brand of device. After that, it's a matter of thinking through the use of QR codes in an advertisement, from end to end and from the consumer's perspective, making certain that the mobile experience (i.e., the scan of the code itself, as well as the viewing of the scan resolve content) is not only flawless, but also steeped in the delivery of value, meaning, benefit, and relevance. Thinking in these terms will undoubtedly put to rest the common thought and practice of reusing desktop content as code scan resolve content, which can be analogized as trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. It may also get marketers to realize that from a response rate or return on investment perspective, a failed QR code-based advertisement or campaign has less to do with the placement of a QR code itself and more to do with the company's overall mobile strategy, which may or may not be fully in place.

To know that mobile and the use of smartphones is growing by leaps and bounds, and that a high number of professional marketers view the mobile phone as the epicenter of an integrated, multichannel, permission-based, one-to-one marketing strategy, companies will continue to realize that it's not a matter of if, but when, they will add and phase mobile into their existing marketing strategy. And, when this happens, the future of QR codes will look as bright as ever.


  1. Tim McKinnonJanuary 04, 2012

    Concisely and expertly stated Roger. If QR is a "properly" employed tactic within a larger, comitted-to, mobile strategy there is exponential value in the channel.

    Not properly employed, QR is nothing but QRAP and marketers run the risk of dooming or at least tainting the channel like we did with email SPAM.

  2. At some point, a judgement call is going to have to be made with regard to whether or not QR has already failed and is on it's last legs.

    Yes, they are everywhere. More and more terrible uses permeate the print landscape (look at any weekly newspaper now). "Excellence" and ingenuity have been forsaken and the public simply have no interest in them. Major brands and marketers are moving on.

    QR-blindness has already set in.

    There may be a few attempts to resurrect QR or give it CPR while the death rattle is mistaken for breathing. But, at some point, we'll have to admit that QR codes will never live up to the promise they once held. They are now "junk marketing." Whether it's worth doing a post-mortem to determine the cause is a whole other issue.

    This didn't have to happen. But, it did. Which is a shame.

  3. Anonymous:

    Thank you for the comment...I love when you write the public simply has no interest in them...and, may I ask, how/who are you to judge? What's your source especially when research shows that more people are scanning than ever? If major brands and marketers are moving on, may I ask, 1) what are they moving on to and 2) why do I keep seeing major brands making use of 2D? With respect to living up to their promise...who made a promise and what was it? Again, you speak as though you know things that others don't. Care to share?

    When you first wrote of "QR-blindness" I believe I agreed with your comment/thought, but I wonder where you get and/or base your information.

  4. Anonymous: As a frequent reader of the blog, which I believe you are, I find it strange that you often comment and then walk away from the conversation after I ask you for further explanation. Regardless, thank you for contributing.