QR codes, those blocky squares of encoded information, have received a drubbing in the media lately. This is due to an appalling failure of businesses to use them correctly and a lack of design creativity that is simply lazy.
Flying to speak to a conference in San Francisco earlier this week I counted 21 QR codes in the in-flight magazine located in the seat back pocket in front of me. Think about that for a moment. The IN-FLIGHT magazine. “In Flight” means absolutely no cell signal and no wifi signal. (Even if there was a wifi signal, do you think I’d pay $10/hour to scan ads?) Other terrible examples included QR codes along the moving sidewalk in the airport (seriously!?). The most common QR code fail is when the code takes you to a non-mobile optimized website.
Note to all Agencies and Businesses using QR codes – THINK! People are scanning from the devices they have in their pockets. These may be as powerful as computers but they are not, in fact, desktops, laptops or even ultrabooks. They are small, portrait oriented smart phones. Vertical scrolling works because it is easy for our thumbs. Horizontal scrolling doesn’t because it is uncomfortable for our thumbs. Don’t fight evolution!
Some people think that NFC (near field communications) or image recognition will take over QR codes as the best way to create “hyperlinks for meatspace”. Here are the five reasons why they’re wrong.
1) Zero Infrastructure Cost. QR Codes require no hardware and no infrastructure to work. NFC relies on hardware in the phone (bluetooth or other short-range secure radio signal) AND in a reader device. Similar solutions have been around for years – FastPass at Disney, Fast Pay at Exxon Mobile gas stations are two examples. These have failed to catch on in no small part because of the high barrier to deployment. Anytime you create a hardware burden for a “convenience” solution you exponentially increase cost (deployment, maintenance, education, distribution). Meanwhile the incremental benefit is small meaning you must have wide adoption to achieve anything like an ROI. This is the same challenge faced by hydrogen fuel cars and plug-in electric vehicles. The cost to re-tool the “fill-’er-up” infrastructure is prohibitive. So different solutions are being considered.
2) Uniqueness. QR codes hold information like URLs or text or contact information. This means that your phone scanner easily reads them and display what that one single QR code is supposed to display. Image recognition software (like leafsnap) uses your phone camera to identify what you’re eating or what kind of a tree that leaf belongs to. So while it can identify a leaf as a Maple or Oak, it cannot tell you interesting things about each individual leaf. QR codes tell you something unique for each code. This is because they contain not just data, but they also tell your phone how to read the data they contain. For this reason, I do not believe that image recognition actually competes with QR codes. They are complementary.
3) Better Distribution. Distribution is important for adoption. QR codes are simpler and cheaper to distribute than NFC. QR codes have a lower barrier to entry than image recognition software. Together that means they enjoy a wider distribution and better adoption. No hardware requirement means that QR code creation is available to anyone. All you need is a printer (and you’ve already got that) and you’re set. QR codes do not require professional developers to tie a database of known images to URLs or text entries about the subject. QR codes are the ultimate re-use tool. Use the information you already have, formatted for the mobile device and reach new and interested audiences.
4) Super Easy. QR codes are incredibly easy to create and customize and brand Sites like QRHacker , the Google Charts API for QR codes and the ZXing Project’s QR generator have made creation easy for anyone. The fact that QR codes can be colored, branded with logos and put next to traditional marketing assets like brochures mean that they effectively extend the reach of physical assets with the power and richness of the web. The risk (as you can see from the fail examples above) is that companies take the ease and fail to account for their audience. Simply slapping a QR code on a brochure that goes to your public website fails to account for where the users are.
5) Reusability. When QR codes point to a URL that goes to a mobile web site you get all the flexibility that comes with the web. This means that one QR code can be continually updated with new information, new videos, new deal information – anything. So take a look around at the whitepapers you have, at the product demos you have, at the sales pitch info you have. Ask around. When are those assets *most* useful? To what kinds of people? At what point of the sales process? As your marketers when customers need that extra little persuasive push to make a decision. Then make sure you get a QR code out at that location, in that environment, targeted to that audience.
Good use of QRs requires planning. You *must* understand what you are trying to achieve. Google doesn’t just slap up some random links on their web properties and hope to make money selling that ad space. They have nearly perfected the art of targeting ads to audiences. There’s a lot of work that goes into it. QR codes are hyperlinks for the real world. They function just like ads – even if they don’t go to marketing materials. To work they require awareness, intent and action. If get those and someone scans, you had better deliver relevant, useful, whimsical, and engaging content. Or risk getting called out in the next update of WTF QR Codes.