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.
“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.”
As someone who lives in NYC, I can state that it is indeed a waste of advertisers’ dollars to include prominint QR codes on posters being utilized throughout the train system unless you are specifically targeting the demographic areas that are above ground. While parts of the subway system are above ground, the vast majority of the subway lines in Manhattan are below ground, as are the stations in Manhattan where signs are posted.
Additionally, if you have ever researched station ridership traffic, you would know that the heaviest trafficked stations are in Manhattan and underground. The particular photo shown in the article is of a poster inside a train car. To base the majority of your poster on a QR code which will only be accessible to a small percent of your viewers in lower trafficked areas is a bad advertising decision as in-car advertising packages are based on ridership numbers and you are typically paying your hefty advertising price to capture the Manhattan market.
I appreciate the added perspective on the New York City transit system, but I stand by my original argument.
My point about split runs is that unless you think the presence of a QR code is going to suppress response, and I don’t think it is, it’s going to cost more to create a split run – just so that the posters that will predominantly appear in internet-free areas won’t have a QR code – than it would to just use the same creative for every media buy.
The JetBlue ad makes a good hero photo for an article about QR codes for obvious reasons. But I think to suggest that it has failed, and money has been wasted, if no one scans it and gets connected to the contest site while they’re staring at it on the subway is faulty reasoning. Yes, it has a hero graphic featuring a giant QR code made up of tiny vacation shots. But the message isn’t “here’s a big QR code that you must scan” (in fact the little wee black and white code in the corner makes clear that the hero graphic is just that, a graphic) – it’s “online contest for a free vacation.” The unwritten headline might be, “This code could be your gateway to a great vacation.” Is it a great ad? We sure are talking about it a lot, which counts for something. But even if we decided that it wasn’t great creative, that fact alone wouldn’t go far in support of Frommer’s assertion that QR codes should be done away with.
If you had a poster that had nothing but a QR code and a CTA that says “Scan it now and win!” with no branding, no headline, and no URL, and the only place you were going to put it was underground, sure I would say that’s not a great idea, for plenty of reasons. But that’s not what we’ve got here. We have a transit ad, which probably appears in hundreds or thousands of different locations all over the city, with a CTA describing the offer with a URL to visit in case you don’t have a QR code scanner, and we have a logo. Even if I don’t bother jotting down the URL, I can go to my computer, type in JetBlue, and if I’m interested enough in the contest I’ll find it. Or maybe I’ll just remember it fondly the next time I see the ad, when I’ve emerged from the subway – brand response is, after all, part brand, part response. In any case, the code isn’t the driver here. The contest is.
I should also point out that internet connectivity isn’t even essential for the initial scan on most devices. Many apps will read a code off a stored image, which means you can take a picture of the code on that poster now and visit the coded URL later. I can also scan a code on my iPhone with Bakodo without an internet connection, and it will store the URL so I can connect when I regain network access.