5 Reasons Why Some People Don't Understand QR Code Marketing

Mashable just published an article by Dan Wilkerson titled, "5 Reasons QR Code Marketing Is Broken (and How to Fix It)". In theory, great topic for an article. In reality, it does little to tackle the issue. Below is Mr. Wilkerson's article with my comments in bold: For years now, marketers, businesses and, well, everybody have touted QR codes as the next big thing. That’s largely because QR codes offered a glimmer of the future, a way to bring physical interactions into the much more malleable (and trackable) digital space. But despite the overwhelming push by marketers to stick a QR code on anything they are publishing, marketing, and eating (yes, eating), there’s been increasing skepticism about its real-world use.  

Mr. Wilkerson, can you please be more specific as to who "everybody" is with respect to touting QR Codes as being the next big thing. Are any of these people the same as those who are "touting" augmented reality, near field communications, digital watermarks, etc.? Also, are they simply "touting" QR Codes as the next big thing, or are they explaining that QR Codes can serve as one more channel by which a company can engage with its audience and thus increase its odds of success (i.e., product sales, lead generation, etc.)?

The skeptics have some pretty good facts on their side. In 2011, a Forrester Research study pegged adoption of QR codes by U.S. adults at 5%, up from a meager 1% the year before. Then, in April, a Temkin Group study found that only 24% of U.S. adults are using these codes, a statistic that is a little encouraging but still tepid. These figures coupled with some serious dismal marketing anecdotes might make you think QR codes are ineffective, and you’d be right. Here’s why.  

Mr Wilkerson, an increase from 1% to 5% is still an increase, no? How is this a negative? Did anyone promise more? And, why should a number like 24% been seen as "tepid?" Yes, it's less than 50%, but it's more than 1%. Given the amount of time that companies have been using codes in earnest, about two years, I would say that's not too poor of a showing.  

1. Worthless Content
From a marketing perspective, QR codes offer obvious value and they’re easy to create, cheap, trackable, and open up a world of possibilities for consumer-product interactions. From the consumer side, however, the value is not as clear. Scanning a code is cumbersome and costs the consumer time and effort. Plus, its value is unknown. Worse still, 90% of the time it’s a link to a website not optimized for mobile. Now you’ve frustrated the consumer and wasted their time, which creates negative sentiment. This is why you must provide the consumer with a valuable reason to scan the code. Consider a significant discount, the first chapters of a book, a free drink at the bar, even a space-specific YouTube video. What you don’t do is use it as a link to your website or Facebook page. That will only annoy your customer.  

Mr. Wilkerson, right here it points to your not understanding what mobile barcode technology/marketing is all about. The scan resolve content can be jam packed with value, but if the call-to-action and messaging in the advertisement do not allude to that then the code itself is worthless. See the difference? Sure valuable scan resolve content is needed, but before that the proper messaging needs to be in place to drive interest in the content.  

2. Consumer Awareness
The biggest problem that QR codes have is that consumers consistently have demonstrated that they don’t have a clue what they are. An ArchRival study of college students found that out of 534 of our nation’s best and brightest, 78.5% didn’t know how to scan a QR code.

Mr. Wilkerson, for a variety of reasons, people have questioned the ArchRival study and its findings. 

Marketers are so excited by the potential and intrigued by the concept that they’ve totally forgotten that consumers are not marketers. Marketers watch ads, click sponsored tweets, and yes, scan QR codes because they have a natural curiosity and passion for brand marketing. But the average consumer needs a marketer to outline to them what action it is they are supposed to take. When it comes to a QR code that means tell them what it is. Consider including a simple list of instructions with a recommended app spelling out how to use the code itself. If you coupled that with compelling content, you’ll introduce consumers to the concept of QR codes as well as how to take advantage of them.

Mr. Wilkerson, here I agree with you. Instructional information will spur adoption.  

3. Value as a Medium
The other consideration that is often ignored is the intrinsic value of the code as a piece of media itself. More often than not, QR codes are used as a simple link to a company website or specific landing page. The thought process being that it saves users the trouble of entering a complicated URL. This would be true if all a user had to do was wave their device over the code. However, let’s consider the user’s side of things. In order to scan a barcode, a user has to: 1. Get out their phone; 2. Unlock their phone; 3. Boot the app; 4. Get the code in focus and scan it. This is assuming they already have an app that scans barcodes. For most users, it’s faster to just search Google for whatever the code is giving them a shortcut to.

Mr. Wilkerson, let's see if I follow you correctly. In order to save scanning time, a user can use Google, as such: 1. Get out their phone. 2. Unlock their phone. 3. Boot Google. 4. Correctly type in the words or URL address to be searched on. 5. Find the most relevant search result and touch it. 6. Arrive at the final destination. Wow! That was a time saver. How can it possibly be easier to enter a deep webpage URL or a specific landing page URL (i.e., more than just company name.com) than it is to scan a code and go there directly?

To address this issue, use a six-to-ten-second guide as a rule of thumb for determining usefulness. If you’re not saving your target at least that much time, scrap the code.

4. Location, Location, Location
Location is another important consideration. QR codes are showing up everywhere, on everything, with seemingly zero thought about context. (For some interesting use-cases, check out WTFQRCODES.) For instance, besides being impossible to scan, QR codes on highway billboards are dangerous and waste valuable visual real estate. A shortened URL, especially one created with a vanity URL shortener, would be easier and more effective. Likewise, QR codes on company vehicles don’t really make much of an impact either, and those are mostly going to be parked directly outside of your business anyways. And QR codes on subway ads are useless too since there’s no data connection for users to load your page. The examples only get stranger from there. The best solution is to walk through your implementation in a real-world scenario to make sure it will actually be useable.  

Mr. Wilkerson, I agree, location/placement must be considered...and considered from the user's perspective, not the advertiser's. But, who here can fix the problem, or is responsible? Creative, the media buyer, both, neither?

5. Aesthetics
QR codes are ugly. Worse still, they’re indistinguishable from codes used for industrial purposes. So a code on a product can be misinterpreted as a tracking barcode instead of a marketing outlet. The good news is they don’t have to be ugly. With a little Photoshop, you can round off the corners of the ugly blocks, giving a sleek feel to the code, and it will still scan. You can also generate codes with up to 30% redundancy, meaning you can remove 30% of the code and instead put your company logo or information about what it unlocks directly into the code. Use a URL shortener to make the code even more manageable and trackable in tools like Google Analytics. There are some limitations to this, since certain parts of codes are integral and can’t be deleted, but it really opens up the creative opportunities for some awesome design work. Better still, you can delete portions of the code to shape it into something else entirely, like a letter in your brand name, or even your logo. The gist is you can make it pretty.  

Mr. Wilkerson, I agree, QR Codes need not be ugly. If given the proper thought and consideration, QR Codes can be an extension of most any corporate brand standard. Also, the use of shortened URLs can make a vast difference in code appearance and its ability to be scanned.

So now you know why your QR codes are a failure and how to fix them. Of course, many are quick to point out that NFC devices are on the horizon and will probably displace these ugly little blocks. Given the encouraging uptick in adoption and the low cost of implementation of QR, however, there’s reason to believe that they will become much more relevant before NFC is fully implemented. The guidelines above will help you make the most out of that opportunity.  

Mr. Wilkerson, not really sure who is making such bets on NFC, regardless, QR Code technology is here and it has been proven to work (i.e., to be an effective and efficient means by which a company can engage and interact with a consumer, provide information, spark a conversation, generate leads and win new business). And, while your "guidelines" may help some, what they fail to do is place QR Code technology in a strategic light, meaning that there is much more work to be done with respect to strategy than merely implementing a code. As with any other marketing element or channel, codes must be understood strategically, as well as tactically and, when that happens, success will follow.


  1. AnonymousMay 18, 2012

    Why don't you write your own article, rather than post snide comments on someone else's work.

    1. Anonymous (or Mr. Wilkinson?), please peruse the rest of Roger's site. All of the points raised in the Mashable article, and more, can be found here being addressed fully. Roger should be the one writing articles for Mashable on 2D barcode use.

    2. Steve

      As always, thank you for the comment and support. Cheers.

  2. Anonymous:

    I can and have written articles about the use of QR Codes (see media link on the site).

    Just as I comment on actual QR Code-based advertising campaigns, I comment on other people's writings on the subject. From the reviews and comments I have gotten from others, many enjoy my style of writing and analysis. Sorry if you find it as being snide.