They’re popping up everywhere. To the design purist who balked at having to include a URL (with the ‘www’ no less) in a print ad or video super ten years ago, these new and rather ugly QR codes and their peer badges must add more insult to aesthetic injury.
Worse, the QR codes I’ve experimented with have consistently yielded a disappointing user experience. This has less to do with the codes themselves than with their rather unimaginative use. While I’ve found several accounts online of clever uses of QR codes, most of the ones I’ve bothered with personally have simply directed me to a website for the bodycopy of the sales pitch.
As QR codes become more common it might be worth stopping a minute before you slap one on your next communications piece. The novelty value will be fleeting as so much is in our culture today.
I was surprised to learn that QR codes have been around since 1994. Of course what’s been missing all this time is a portable reader in every hand. Now, with U.S. smartphone penetration at about 31%, the ROI on QR code initiatives might make them worth employing – especially if you’re targeting minorities who index much higher than anglos in terms of smart phone use (interesting eh?).
(It’s also interesting to note here that at 31%, smart phone penetration has some ground to gain if its to make Nielson’s 50% estimate for close of 2011. Granted, growth is about 60%/year in the category. It will be worth watching whether actual use meets Nielson’s 2009 prediction on 12/31/11.)
As it turns out, making QR codes is pretty easy. Maybe that’s part of the problem. When everyone can do it, you get the YouTube effect – a lot of noise to sift through before you find the really good stuff. I created the QR code in this blog post myself. It points to my LinkedIn page. Because they’re so easy to make, I’m not surprised that they’re appearing more frequently now. They’re also something ‘new’ (despite the 1994 birthyear) for marketers to foist upon their constituencies. I see them in magazine ads, on transit posters, even on videos. I do have to wonder though, how well they’re working – for both the communicator and the person standing there with the smartphone in their hand.
There’s a little labor on the smartphone owner’s part, right? In addition to downloading a QR code reader, you have to be interested enough in a premise to whip out your phone in the middle of the street, call up the app, focus on the code to scan it and then settle in while the 3G connection chugs along loading the website or message in a fairly small screen which in turn usually requires some zooming to read.
If the result of that effort is just a website and sales pitch, well, I’d be disappointed. Wouldn’t you?
So where am I going with this? Well, I suppose my biggest point is that just because the codes can be created, and just because 1-in-3 people can download a reader and decipher them, doesn’t mean 1) you should use them and 2) people will bother with your code. Like every other digital shiny object that comes down the line to rescue marketers from being stuck with the conventional stuff, QR codes aren’t the point but are rather the process of getting to the point.
That’s very important to keep in mind.
Simply getting someone to scan your QR code isn’t in and of itself a communications victory. The barrier to leave is far lower than the barrier to entry in the case of QR codes. Unlike clicking web links, scanning QR codes takes time and effort. Disappointment on the other end of this more significant effort feels like betrayal or at least having one’s time wasted. Those are strong emotions. Emotions you probably don’t want associated with your brand, product, service or what have you.
As I write this, it dawns on me that perhaps one of the more under-discussed metrics in the digital space, but one that is very important in measuring ‘engagement’ in digital communucations, is the bounce rate. It’s fun to count inbound traffic coming to a site. How about those session lengths though? Is 1 min. really ‘engagement’. And what about depth? If someone only goes a page into your site what does that say about that long session time? (Either they’re slow readers or the browser is loaded but no one is looking.) And a high bounce, especially if combined with a short session time, probably means your message , including your QR code (or other inbound traffic mechanism) – has missed the mark in terms of the value its delivering to your customer.
Proportionally speaking, it takes a marketing firm far less effort to add a QR code to a communications piece than it does the single user to go through the work of deciphering it. You’ll want to be sure all the dots are connected and that your message is on point and delivers a fair value exchange for your customer’s time.
Anything else is misalignment.