They have become the standard violator appearing on advertising; in the corner of print ads, across billboards, on buses, or in pieces of direct mail — even peppered throughout this article. You’ve seen them; that little block of even littler squares. Unfortunately the technology behind QR codes was not invented for advertising and marketing; we are just co-opting its usage, and it shows.
From the relative lack of public understanding of what they even are, to the dearth of creativity in their usage, the QR code is destined to become just the little box that geek built. But if it does go the way of CueCat, only we are to blame. Here’s why.
The current use of QR codes in advertising is…
I could finish that statement with “stupid,” “useless,” “uncreative,” or “uninspiring.” Surprisingly, that is not news to anyone at advertising agencies or brands. QR codes seem to be a last ditch effort; an ignored piece of “Hey, throw a QR code on there that leads to our website.” But why bother? The general public seems largely oblivious to what they are used for, and why they are on all those ads. In my informal “on the street” survey of 300 people last month, I held up a sign with a QR code on it and the phrase: “Free gift if you can tell me what this is.”
I was not asking them to decipher it, just tell me what it actually was. Here are the results:
- 11 percent correctly answered QR code or quick response code
- 29 percent responded with “Some barcode thingy”
- Seven percent guessed some variant of “Those things you stare at that get 3D when you cross your eyes. What picture is it? I can’t seem to get it”
- The remaining 53 percent tried everything from a secret military code, Korean (uh really?), to an aerial street map of San Francisco
My survey was conducted in San Francisco, the veritable Mecca of the planet for tech, so it only goes downhill from here. When I asked those who knew it was some type of “barcode” how they could decipher it, 35 percent answered “with their phone.” When I asked them to actually “read” it with their phone? Only 45 percent of those were able to do it, and it took an average of 47 seconds for them to take out their phone and find the application to read the QR code — not exactly a “quick response.” Remember that agencies are putting these on moving buses and highway billboards.
Melanie Schultz van Haegen, the minister of infrastructure and the environment in the Netherlands has actually proposed banning their use on highways, and in Maryland, it is just as illegal to scan a QR code while driving as it is to text. If you are going to use a QR code in an advertisement, make sure the consumer doesn’t only have five seconds to get at it, and that it’s not a potential disaster for them to do so.
Interestingly, the vast majority of surveyed users who were unable to scan the code were on iPhones. The iPhone, unlike Google’s Android, does not come with a native QR code application.
The success of a technical solution is dependent on the ease with which that technology can be used by the general public. A good example of this law is Flash implementation in web browsers. It’s just there. It works. If it’s not there, it installs itself in a couple clicks. Having a standard application and process for consumption is necessary for mass understanding and adoption.
Knowing all of this, are QR codes effective or useful in advertising?
QR code usage now
Most of the QR codes found in current advertising are an absolute waste of time. I personally tested over 200 random QR codes I saw in advertising for this article, and it was a wake-up call to how absolutely uncreative agencies and brands have become. And I say “agencies and brands” because it’s really not the QR codes fault: A QR code is a tool, nothing more, and it is a poor marketer who blames the tool. The vast majority of those I scanned landed me on a webpage that was the same URL as in the ad itself. That is about as useful as telling someone your name while wearing a name tag.
There was a time when QR codes for marketers had more promise; when phones were not all decked out with keyboards. Everyone hated predictive text input on the standard dumb-phones, especially if you had to type in a URL. It was just too difficult to type anything substantial. But then there was another issue: Why bother shooting a QR code with those dumb-phones when their browsers sucked?
The industry shifted right past the need for most of the current uses of QR codes in marketing — URLs, vCards (contact information), email, and SMS messages. The QR code for marketing was a quick, simple way to get and transfer that information, and yet the keyboard proliferation of smartphones made those uses unnecessary. It is why most “business card” scanners fail. Most people I know in the industry have purchased one at some point, and most are gathering dust in a drawer. Why? It’s faster, unless you have an ungodly amount of them, to enter them manually. QR codes can now be found on the back of many business cards, but how many of you have ever scanned one?
People will not adopt a technical solution that serves to replace a manual task, if that solution is less efficient than the manual task it replaces. How could we think that QR codes for marketing would work any better than CueCat? Did we not learn the first time?
What benefit could they provide?
QR codes for marketing are an interesting concept in search of a more efficient solution. They have been adopted by the advertising industry, but were not created for it. Developed by a division of Toyota, they were initially used to track parts in vehicle manufacturing. It is not the QR codes fault that the vast number of agencies are as creative as dryer lint; it is no wonder, in an advertising age of increasing focus on direct response metrics, that creativity has been sucked out of agencies.
Creative usage of a technical solution increases its viral potential and positive brand association. If you are going to use a QR code, then be creative with it. I get paid to come up with digitally strategic sound ideas for agencies and clients, so I am going to provide you with five ideas for better uses of QR codes. I believe that if you tell someone their ideas suck it really does not help them “unsuck,” and that is sadly too often the feedback many Creatives get. However, if you show them the types of ideas that are possible, then you can help catalyze their own ideation to be more successful. These are but a few.
Idea one: Scavenger hunt
My first idea is a scavenger hunt using QR codes placed around a city. Each clue leads to the next clue but requires the clue before it to make sense, and each clue is placed in an ad for your brand. You initially blast a single QR Code to people via a print ad or email. The program can be scaled to cities across the U.S. and the world, enabling you to have a global scavenger hunt. It is not important what the “prize” is at the end: That could be handled a variety of ways. It is important to use technology in ways that engage people and help foster interest and buzz outside of the program itself.
Idea two: Bar coasters dares
QR codes on bar drink coasters with dares for the person to do, such as “Go up to a woman and tell her this… [a phrase in a different language]” The trick is that most of the time neither party knows what is being said. That spurs an inquiry which usually results in some type of social interaction. Engaging with consumers and encouraging the social aspect helps solidify your brand in a positive reinforcing way. The phrases, pickup lines, dares, whatever you want to use are just ways to encourage social interaction associated with your brand. And social interaction associated with your brand is what causes positive reinforcing moments of memory that greatly facilitate positive brand recall.
Idea three: Print or online banner adjunct promotion
If you include a QR code in a print ad, instead of having it just go to your website, create a promotion where some of the thousands of QR codes printed on those ads win something. What you are really trying to do is have people engage with the ad you are already paying for. You do not actually believe that when you have an ad printed on a newspaper or a magazine that most people actually notice it, do you? Use creative ways to encourage engagement with the mediums you are already spending money on. You could do the exact same promotion online with banner ads. If you really want people to notice your online banner ads, then give them a reason to not only look for them but engage with them. Do not have the print ad or the banner be about the promotion: Have it communicate what it normally would. The QR code on it is a technique to help facilitate the message you want communicated in the first place. It’s a way to get people to pay attention to you!
Idea four: Triggering curiosity sells
The “unknown” sells, as does the creative use of our own “imagination of possibilities.” One of the greatest advantages of QR codes is that you cannot read them without technology. Use that. Develop a strategy for implementing QR codes on your ads that go to a webpage with something provocative on it. Or just have it say something that the ad could not, like a tagline that is way over the top, or some hidden message for those willing to engage with it. People like to feel as if they are part of an “in” group. They will go to great lengths to try and differentiate themselves. Your ad can provide the ego with a nice little hit of juice.
Whatever you do, try not to do not do what Calvin Klein did. The below billboard was to go to some “steamy too hot for the billboard ad.” If you want to break through the clutter, PG-13 at best isn’t going to cut it. What I ended up thinking was “lame attempt;” and I am not that different from you. Although CK has gotten some press for the stunt, it’s not about press that speaks to the ad industry, it is about press that speaks to the consumer that is important. If you are really advertising something “uncensored” then take a risk. Really Calvin? That’s as much as you are willing to push the edge? Lame!
If you want to take the risk, take the risk. Warn people, but take the risk. Don’t send people to something that has them feel ripped off when going there. That’s negative brand reinforcement. The internet is NOT where “uncensored” means PG-13.
Idea five: Transparency
Use QR codes to provide transparency in a way that has not been done before. Use an SMS QR code to send direct feedback to your brand straight to a real person in the company, and create a human face for your brand by doing so. Imagine getting an SMS back and having a real contact at a brand you enjoy working with? There are bound to be systems to handle and integrate SMS outreach with your social media efforts. The key is to provide people with a direct simple way to have a voice.
Whatever you do in your digital efforts, stop adhering to the status quo. Your message is getting lost there.
The current uses of QR codes are just not cutting it. What we’re missing is a killer campaign that will train people to use their phones to scan.
Further, until Apple includes a native QR code application and automatically integrates it with their camera application, QR codes will remain a curious oddity for the technically proficient geeks and bleeding adopters. Such is the power of the iPhone to influence.
Does it hurt to use them in your ads? Not really, unless the payoff to the consumer is so incredibly lame that it causes a negative appraisal of the company among influencers. So please do not use them to just send people to your homepage URL. Most of us can read, and type faster.