Are QR Codes a Terrible Idea?

On there is an article titled “QR Codes Are A Terrible Idea. Why Is Image Recognition Even Worse?” and I have a couple of comments/questions for the author Frank Hayes. The article is shown below, with my comments/questions in italics.

QR Codes Are A Terrible Idea. Why Is Image Recognition Even Worse?
By Frank Hayes

QR codes are ugly. They’re intrusive. Most designers hate them because there’s no way to make them look any less like the brick-full-of-blocks they are, especially when they’ve been slapped next to a great-looking retail marketing image.

2DBS: Mr. Hayes, it’s true, many designers don’t like QR Codes, but it’s not true that QR Codes cannot be made to “look any less like the brick-full-of-blocks they are.” On the contrary, QR Codes can be customized with respect to embedded logos and images, colors and shapes, and if one were to conduct a search on “designer QR Codes” a number of very imaginative and innovative code designs would appear. 

That’s why the idea of leaving out the QR code entirely and just getting a mobile phone to react to the image itself is so appealing. It looks so much better that it’s easy to forget why it’s a bad idea. That ugly, intrusive QR code screams “point your camera at me!” An ordinary image doesn’t. As a result, if potential customers know what they’re supposed to do with a QR code, they can easily do it. But how are they supposed to know that there’s any special significance to the image in an ad or brochure?

2DBS: Mr. Hayes, the answer is simple, education. Just like with QR Codes, advertisers using image recognition will have to (should) spend the time and expend the energy to inform and educate consumers on what image recognition is and how it can be used and interacted with. From the dozens of real-life uses of image recognition technology in magazines, most advertisers and publishers have done a very thorough jobs of introducing and educating readers about the technology.  

This comes up because of a story we saw about LTU Technologies, which claims its image-matching tech is so good that just pointing a a smartphone’s camera at an appropriate image can trigger the same kind of response – a web page, a coupon, additional details – as a QR code. We’ll take the company at its word for that (though of course if you’re thinking about using it, you’d be crazy not to test it thoroughly).

2DBS: Mr. Hayes, LTU is a leader in image recognition and their product does work when correctly implemented. With respect to linking an image, logo, etc. to a web page, a coupon, etc., yes, this works much in the same way that a QR Code can link to similar content. Also, in regard to testing, it goes without saying that any technology to be used or offered to customers should be tested. I have long advocated that this be considered a best practice. 

Unlike digital watermarking, this is pure image recognition. You don’t have to load the image up with too-subtle-for-the-human-eye markers, you just upload the image to LTU along with indications of which parts of the image are most recognizable. It does the matching and sends the customer whatever information or redirect you’ve specified. It’s a clever idea, and it seems like it should work perfectly once it’s everywhere. The customer points her phone at a logo and gets a website, at a magazine ad and gets a coupon, at a billboard and gets directions to the nearest story. But it’s not everywhere. And the vast majority of logos, ads and billboards aren’t waiting for customers to point a phone at them. Point the phone and nothing will happen. After a while – a very short while for most customers – the charm will wear off.

It’s hard enough to get consumers to point their phones at QR codes, where they can be sure something is encoded in the brick-full-of-blocks (even if it’s something the consumer really doesn’t want). They’re slowly being trained by a few specific applications such as Peapod’s virtual grocery stores and the occasional giant billboard, but QR’s use is nowhere near what its proponents expected.

And that’s with a technology that trumpets the fact that it’s there. Pure-play image recognition, where the few images that can be recognized are vastly outnumbered by the great many that give no response, hasn’t got a chance – at least out on the street.

2DBS: Mr. Hayes, at this point you lost me. I’m not really certain I understand the point you are trying to make. Scan a QR Code in an ad and it might lead to a landing page. Scan a second and it might lead to a map. Scan a third and it might lead to a mobile coupon. The same with image recognition-based ads, billboards, promotions, etc. The charm will wear off and consumers will lose interest in scanning codes, images, whatever, when the interactive brand/product experience and engagement is less than what’s been promised and/or expected. Or, if there is no value, meaning, relevance or benefit to the consumer. As with QR Codes, it will take time for consumers to understand that each image scan will result in a different resolve, but it will happen.

Then there are the technical issues. A QR code actually contains information that can be decoded without a network connection or a vendor on the other end. In a cell dead spot with no Wi-Fi? Customers can point cameras all they want, and nothing will happen. (And there are a surprising number of dead spots, even in urban areas.) Nothing discourages the use of technology like that tech mysteriously stopping and then starting again.

That said, once you get customers in off the street and into a situation you control, this might work brilliantly. In-store, with customer-accessible Wi-Fi and images you’ve already uploaded to a vendor, customers can point at lots of images and get a reaction. You could even pitch it as a reason to come into the store. Prepping all those images is plenty of work, but so is adding QR codes to everything. And trying out image recognition might distract some customers from actually shopping, but that’s a risk of any in-store technology.

2DBS: Mr. Hayes, I understand you wrote the article for a retail audience, which is fine, but let’s not make excuses for what a CMO, or the like, should know. There is a time and place for different strategies, tactics and technologies. What might work out of the store, might not work in store and vice versa. A marketer needs to understand the pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages of any particular technology before deploying it into the field. Also, let’s not make excuses or cut corners for when it comes to simple testing and research. Who’s to say that some experimentation cannot be done with different technologies?

Of course, you could get around the most-images-don’t-work problem by putting some kind of logo near images that trigger recognition — something that flags those images as special. Something like, say, an ugly, intrusive brick-full-of-blocks?

2DBS: Actually, many magazine publishers who have made use of image recognition, as well as digital watermarks, have developed a certain logo or icon to inform readers of the special editorial or advertising content that lies behind the scanning of an image or watermark.

In summary, I believe the most important take away from what Mr. Hayes writes about is that marketers need to do their homework when it comes to using print-to-digital technology and, it’s just as important, to learn about how consumers are interacting with, accepting and making use of such technology. Nothing is a given, and what works for one company, might not work for another.


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