QR code haters gonna hate QR codes

don't hate me because i'm functional

Don’t hate me because I’m usable

I’ve managed to trip over Dan Frommer’s Business Insider article Death to the QR Code twice in the past week, mostly as a result of marketing colleagues passing the link around via Twitter or LinkedIn. If the purpose of that provocative headline was to drag more eyeballs onto the Business Insider site, then I must concede its success.

If, on the other hand, the purpose of the article is to support the premise that advertisers should abandon the QR code, based on the fact that Google no longer supports QR codes for Places, I remain unconvinced. As we discovered this week, Google has acquired Punchd, a startup that has developed a digital loyalty card system to which QR codes are integral.

Maybe the folks at Google are hedging their bets, Enid Burns of allBusiness posits in her article Are QR Codes About to Hit the Mobile Mainstream? – and hedging one’s bets would seem wise based on the statistics Ms Burns cites, which suggest that QR code adoption among smartphone users splits that group pretty much right down the middle. Apparently there are two kinds of smartphone users in this world, them what does and them what don’t.

Google’s presumed abandonment isn’t Mr Frommer’s only complaint about the QR code though. Let’s have a look at some of the issues that are causing him concern:

“They’re not the future of advertising.” If someone unveils something in a boardroom and tells you it’s the future of advertising, whether it looks like a chess board that’s been designed by the military or your mother’s never-fail pie crust recipe, drag whoever is holding the slide remote out to the elevators by his or her ear and lock the door behind them. No single thing will be the future of advertising ever again – not even advertising.

“Making sure different types of phones get the right kind of content.” This isn’t actually about QR codes. No matter how you’re sending someone to a mobile site, you have to give some thought to what it’s going to look like when they get there – the same way you do for a desktop site. If you think this is too much trouble, you should give up on the mobile audience. But for the record, it isn’t a lot of trouble. Mobile themes are available for WordPress, for example, out of the box (though I customized the one I use for this site). If you’re too big a deal to be using WordPress for your commercial site, you should consider the value in having your developers draw up an estimate for a mobile version. Another option is a mobile landing page that gives your customer some options to choose from, such as the one I whipped up for my business card in a few hours one afternoon.

“The decision about how much space in the ad to devote to instructing people what to do with the barcode.” How much time you want to spend on this decision is entirely up to you. If you’d like to make the decision quickly, just think about whether someone who doesn’t already have a scanning app is going to download one while they’re looking at your ad. If it’s an out-of-home execution, they probably won’t, so don’t bother telling them how. If it’s a magazine ad, your customer is sitting down somewhere with some time to kill, and maybe there’s even free wi-fi floating around. Think of your consumers: Who are they? Where are they? Is there a benefit to giving them the mobile option? Is that borderline late-adopter part of the audience you’re trying to cultivate?

“Nevermind the advertisers who have been putting QR codes on their ads underground – such as on the NYC subway – where there is no Internet connectivity at all.” I’m not an expert on the NYC subway system, living as I do north of the border. But some quick research demonstrates that a substantial amount of the NYC subway system is, in fact, above ground. It’s the same here in Toronto. Splitting a print run of transit ads simply for the purpose of making sure there were no QR codes on posters in stations with no wireless service, and then making sure that the right posters go to the right locations (many of them won’t, trust me) would just be throwing your client’s money away. For that matter, much of the same artwork is used for both above-ground shelters and in-station placements; again, it’s more cost-effective to have the studio re-size a file than redesign it based on the fear that an inaccessible QR code is going to turn someone off.

In conclusion, QR codes are a land of contrasts

I don’t consider myself a champion of QR codes, but I’m a proponent of usability. As far as my own empirical observation goes, QR codes will work just fine until something better comes along. The author has made some suggestions for what the next big thing might be, but none of them are here yet. Maybe Google will roll out Goggles to the extent that we can rely on it universally. Maybe near-field communication will take off and it will be cost-effective to embed NFC chips in all your out-of-home ads someday. Maybe “image recognition is getting good enough” – in fact I can hook you up with a vendor who’s been triggering augmented reality presentations on mobile phones using images as codes for over a year. But until there’s an equivalent of an ICANN database for images, you’re going to need to download a dedicated app for each campaign – which means you can’t get instant gratification the way you can with a QR code, and it’s still not going to work in an underground subway station.

And I don’t care what Mr Frommer says, there’s no way you can convince me that it’s easier to launch a browser and type in a URL than it is to launch a QR code scanner and point your phone at an ad. If you’re having real troubles doing that, your app might be to blame – the first one I tried when I got my iPhone didn’t work, but the next one I pulled down was nigh-on foolproof.

We’re never going to get 100% adoption of QR code readers. We’re never going to get 100% adoption of internet-capable smartphones either. But with any ad campaign you have to ask the right questions to find the right solution. Is a QR code appropriate for your target consumer? And is the presence of a QR code going to offend the putative consumers that supposedly find them confusing? My dad can’t use my rotary-dial digital microwave because it doesn’t have a numeric keypad. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to scrap it and replace it with a hot plate.

Read the follow-up here.