HypeBusters: QR Codes Are Hopeless

Time for a reality check on QR codes. They’re all the rage now with advertisers, promising to magically bring interactivity to static ads like billboards and magazine placements. It’s a step closer to Minority Report.
Here’s the problem: Americans don’t actually use QR codes. We don’t walk up to billboards on the street and scan them with an app on our phone. Sorry, not happening. It’s a waste of a marketer’s budget. The marketing industry is engaged in one of its periodic bouts of self-delusion. It’s like Second Life. Hardly any of us used it, or did so more than a few times for the gee-whiz factor, but it was still the cool thing to talk about for a while.
Admittedly, one of the things that frustrates me about our industry is when people shoot down a technology because they don’t use personally. That said, every time QR codes are brought up in brainstorms, client meetings and in industry conversations, I find hardly anybody uses QR readers in their everyday lives. And these are the early adopters! If the early adopters don’t see the value, if they aren’t willing to jump through the hoops and adopt, do you think the average person will?



A QR codes proponent recently wrote a Mashable op-ed positing that QR codes are finally going mainstream because there’s an increased number of brand executions. Ad Age followed up this week with a trend piece on brands embracing QR codes. And indeed some are. Look at JetBlue. If you’ve spent time on the New York City subway lately, you’ve seen its QR-happy campaign. Here’s the problem: the subway doesn’t have cell phone connectivity. Scanning the code is a dead end.
Beyond executional problems, there’s a strategic flaw. QR codes are pushed by brands, not people. This isn’t the path to mass adoption. There were plenty of Second Life islands built by brands. It didn’t make Second Life any closer to the mainstream. Brands have been integrating QR codes in to campaigns for several years now. Where are the usage stats? All the articles that I’ve read, like the one mentioned above, are devoid of any real third-party data from someone that doesn’t have a vested interest in the results.
At the end of the day, it’s clear QR codes don’t solve a problem for people. There are more intuitive ways for them to get the information. Even worse, they solve a problem for marketers. This is a classic mistake. Marketers are always trying to get consumers to act a certain way with technology rather than find their place in how people already use technology. For most people, QR codes are confusing, laborious, and there’s no payoff. Do marketers really expect people to download an app, open it, scan a code, and then wait for an ad or some unknown piece of content to be pushed at them? Is this a conspiracy to make the .01 percent banner ad click-through rates look better?
The good news is all hope is not lost on the mobile interaction front. It’s just misplaced. Near Field Communication is a technology that allows information to be exchanged between two devices. One device (an out of home ad) acts as a transmitter, and the other (a smartphone) acts as a receiver. Tech companies like Google, Nokia and AT&T are already putting their weight behind NFC. (Apple is apparently waiting for more “clear standards.”) Google’s Nexus S comes with NFC hardware. It’s built into the Android operating system. Translation: this is already on a phone, making it 100 times more likely people will use it. They’ll be able to simply swipe the phone close to a transmitter, and it will work. NFC also enables secure mobile payments (ROI anyone?) and holds the potential to offer more engaging interactive experiences than QR codes because it allows for two-way communication. All in all it offers the potential for a significantly more powerful experience than QR codes.
I can prattle on about NFC and QR codes, but regular people don’t care about our technology debates. They care about experiences. And simply put, QR codes do not offer a good experience, at least not today. The agencies and brands that truly get that will dedicate themselves to understanding how people actually use emerging technologies (not how they want people to use them) and build experiences that provide real value based on those insights. If those arguments don’t work with an insistent true believer, send this video:
Jack Benoff is vp of product and marketing at Zugara, an augmented reality software developer. Follow him on Twitter @jack_benoff
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