Another Swipe at QR Codes

Here’s the latest swipe at the future of QR Code technology.

Yesterday, Cormac Foster, a less-than-informed technology reporter, published an article on ReadWriteWeb titled “Technology DeathWatch: QR Codes.” Let’s have at it, shall we? My comments are in bold.

ReadWriteWeb Technology DeathWatch: QR Codes 
by Cormac Foster
September 10, 2012

The ReadWriteWeb DeathWatch has tagged 13 companies against the ropes. But this week we’re trying something new, taking a close look at technologies on their way out. First up, the QR Code, a concept that was always more flash than bang.

The Basics
In 1994, Denso Corporation created the Quick Response (QR) Code, a 2-dimensional square barcode. It was more easily readable than traditional Universal Product Code (UPC) barcodes, was capable of storing a great deal more information, and its design was durable enough to be read through severe damage to a tag.

For 15 years, the QR code lived a quiet life in factories and warehouses, but when camera-loaded, apps-enabled smartphones burst on the scene, advertisers saw an opportunity. Businesses began embedding URLs in QR codes (and other 2-dimensional tags) so users could simply snap a picture of a tag and visit a website without having to type in the address. Clever marketers exploited the QR Code’s extended data storage, filling extra space with custom colored images and text. Microsoft even launched a competing product, which is usually a sign that a technology has arrived.

The Problems
Missing Data: Used properly, QR codes make it very easy to segment customers and campaigns. For example, a real estate agent might use different QR Codes in her print campaigns and yard signs, so clicks on different tags would show her which medium is driving interest. Unfortunately, since QR Codes usually launch a Web browser, the agent won’t get access to the most critical piece of information – the prospect’s phone number.

This is a shame, since by definition, everyone who snaps a QR Code is holding a live, connected cell phone and interested enough to engage. A simple, low-tech “Text this code to this number for more information” message would be accessible to a far greater number of prospects and create a workable lead with valid contact info.

2DBS: Mr. Foster, at first, you make an excellent point, but then you seem to make no sense. When it comes to QR Code metrics and reporting, it seems as though marketers are hung up on scan rates and nothing else. In reality, scan rates tell very little about how a consumer truly interacted with and experienced a QR Code-based ad. What about tracking time on site or page, number of page click throughs, site enter or exit points, number of social shares, number of downloads (e.g., white paper, article), number of activations (e.g., mobile coupon), etc.? Marketers need to think past the scan and determine what other metrics can be tracked.

With respect to the real estate agent not getting a prospect’s phone number, if in fact that is the most critical piece of information, why can’t the QR Code link to a landing page that asks for contact information which would, in effect, help qualify the prospect that much more? Also, a QR Code could be generated in such a fashion that, when scanned, a phone call can be placed to the realtor automatically. It all depends on how engaged the realtor wishes the prospect to get and how they communicate that in their ad. A QR Code does not have to launch a web browser.

To be fair, a QR code can also be configured to send a text message on scan, but manual text messaging has several advantages. Many users find auto-launch texting jarring and intrusive, and only a subset of phone users have compatible handsets.  

User Error: For most users, scanning QR codes isn’t all that easy. Many smartphones still require users to download a custom code reading app. The odds that the average user will do so when presented with a code to scan are pretty minimal. The chances the same user will go back home and download the app later? Even for users with an integrated QR code reader, the process still isn’t sufficiently automated. On my Android phone, the process involves five steps, the fourth of which is completely unintuitive.

  1. Open the Camera app.
  2. Take a picture of the code.
  3. Open the picture.
  4. Click “Share”
  5. Click “Decode QR Code”

2DBS: Where is the data which supports the statement “The odds that the average user will do so when presented with a code to scan are pretty minimal.”? Beyond that, maybe half your problem is that there is no reason to open your mobile phone’s camera to scan and interact with a QR Code. Once a code reader app is installed a consumer only needs to take two steps: 1) launch the code reader app and 2) scan the QR Code. That’s it. Done. 

Why you and others keep talking about the inconvenience of searching for and downloading a code reader app is beyond me. What happens with any other app on the market? Consumers search for them, download them, install them, add the appropriate icon to their mobile screen and then make use of the app as they see fit. What is so very different about code reader apps? Nothing, that’s what. 

Code processing will be easy enough for mass consumption the day every phone’s camera auto-senses a code and prompts the user to autoload a link, and not a moment before.

2DBS: Maybe code processing is already easy enough for the masses but, for some reason, you just don’t get it.
Programming Error: Like most technologies looking for a reason to exist, QR codes are completely misunderstood by marketers trying to shoehorn the “next big thing” into places it shouldn’t go. I’ve seen QR codes on roadside billboards (dangerous), athletes’ butts (tricky and awkward), and – my favorite – in email signatures or on Web pages in which the user could just click on a text link. For every sensible use of a QR code (for example, subway advertisements or bus shelters), there’s a really dumb one that just makes marketers look silly.

2DBS: QR Codes are hardly the “next big thing” but, even if they were, you’re right, codes don’t belong in some places, however, that’s not the code’s fault, that’s the marketer’s fault. But where you show your misunderstanding of codes is when you yourself write, “For every sensible use of a QR code (for example, subway advertisements or bus shelters), there’s a really dumb one that just makes marketers look silly.” Have you ever tried to scan a QR Code in a subway where there was no internet connection? Doesn’t work, does it? So how is this sensible?

Better Technologies: Perhaps the flashiest replacement for QR Codes is Augmented Reality (AR), which overlays artificial reality on a backdrop of the real world. As I have pointed out, AR holds more promise than QR codes because it can provide immersive environments in a current context, takes up no space in print media and can be applied retroactively to existing assets.

2DBS: Augmented Reality may not take up space in printed media, but space does need to be allotted for explaining the technology and how it is to be used. From what I have seen, more space seems to be allotted to this type of copy than to the placement of a QR Code. Also, do marketers really care about the “flashiest” of technologies, or should they be more focused on which technology works best for their customers in any given situation? Also, if managed correctly, QR Code content can be altered after the first use. So what’s AR got on codes?    

Near Field Communications(NFC) and Radio Frequency Identification(RFID) are two very different but functionally similar technologies with strong futures. Unlike QR Codes, NFC and RFID do not require line-of-sight, and they have massive industry backing. RFID chips are already showing up in everything from US passports to tennis shoes, and the list of NFC-enabled cell phones continues to grow.

2DBS: And the cost of NFC to a company is what? And the idea of proximity for NFC to work is what? Maybe it’s just a matter of understanding which technology works best in the given situation and/or environment. Each has it’s own advantages and disadvantages, too bad you don’t really spell them out. Also, if you were a bit more informed, you might have mentioned a little known technology called digital watermarks and what they offer.

The Retro Voice Option: Led by the iPhone’s Siri, faster processors are putting a new twist on the old pastime of talking into your phone. Speaking the name of a company or person into your phone is a lot easier than typing in a URL. Plus, a voice-activated search can provide lots more information than a directed click of a link or tag.

2DBS: How is voice activation any easier if I want to bring a consumer directly to a deep page on my company’s website, for example?  With a QR Code, the consumer scans the code and they are there? No room for voice misinterpretation, the sorting through of search results, etc. Once again, all of these mobile phone-based technologies have a time and place. 

The Prognosis
So, if not all users have smartphones, not all smartphones can process QR codes and not all users of capable smartphones bother to scan the codes, what do QR codes really bring to the party? Over the next few years, marketers will begin to target QR codes more effectively, but without simpler client tools and much better awareness, it’s likely that texting, speech-based searches and alternative scanning technologies will win out.

It won’t be long until QR codes return to their industrial roots where their comparatively low cost make them more appealing than RFID chips.

2DBS: Last I heard, smartphones are now in the majority versus feature phones. Regardless, QR Code best practice suggests the use of text codes, along with the QR Code, in order for the advertiser to engage with as wide of an audience as possible. Regarding the tools, how much more simplistic do they need to be (i.e., a code reader app)? Maybe it’s you and not the tools.

Can This Technology Be Saved?
Probably not. It isn’t worth the effort. Without a major corporate backer, who has a real stake in the survival of the standard in commercial advertising?

2DBS: Sure this technology can be saved. It’s only a matter of marketers learning best practice and how best to implement the codes from the consumer’s perspective, not their own.

In summary, it is my hope that readers take away the more constructive points that I am trying to make and, in doing so, are able to formulate and execute winning QR Code-based campaigns in the future. 


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