A recent trip to the Outdoor Retailer show in Utah had me convinced: Mobile barcodes are everywhere. From bus benches to the shelves of major retailers, the chunky codes have become integrated into nearly all media. At the same time, many pundits and trend-watchers rally that mobile barcodes are already on the way out, obsolescing by advances in image recognition and near-field communications (NFC). While Google's shift away from QR codes in its Places service is perhaps the first few bars of a swan song, CMOs will continue to ask their thought leaders for a point of view.
Reputable data at last
ComScore has recently published one of the most interesting and unbiased reports on QR code usage to date, and it confirms what many in marketing suspect: Very few people are actually scanning these codes. By comScore's measure, 6.2 percent of the total mobile audience scanned a QR code during June 2011. According to the study, young males with higher income are the most likely to engage with this type of media.
What's wrong with mobile barcodes?
There are several barriers for consumers. Not only does the user need to be familiar with the format, but they also have to have a modestly equipped mobile device and download a reader app. Once that's covered, they still need an active data connection, and most of all -- they need the time.
Consumers also need to understand what they can expect to find as a result of scanning a code, but oftentimes the codes themselves get in the way of the message. This is purely a subjective observation, but many campaigns that include QR codes seem like ads for QR codes. There are certainly exceptions, and some of the most well-executed campaigns would have been impossible without them (the Homeplus Subway Virtual Store comes to mind). But generally speaking, effective QR codes take valuable real estate that could otherwise be used to communicate a message.
I recently visited a high-end electric automobile showroom that had some very interesting touch-screen kiosks (any guesses?). As I became immersed in the experience of designing my dream roadster, a small prompt percolated into view and asked me if I would like to follow the brand on Facebook. I took the bait, and an overlay appeared with a QR code. I was so engaged that I pulled my phone out and scanned without a second thought. The QR code took me directly to the brand's Facebook page.
At first, this seemed like a good execution, but it was really a missed opportunity. Because the kiosk was already connected to the internet, the kiosk designers could have fairly easily facilitated my login and allowed me to post an image of the car directly to my wall. In this case, the QR code had become a technological crutch.
Other times, mobile barcodes are being used on billboards alongside the highway or in places where a data connection is unlikely. When mobile barcodes are used in such a way that makes them nearly impossible to use, they will obviously produce terrible results and leave a sour taste in the mouths of both marketers and consumers alike.
The following are five recommendations for using mobile barcodes effectively.
Consider carefully whether barcodes are truly a viable option for a campaign. You need to get the right message to the right people at the right time. If you do choose to use QR in your campaigns, make sure that the young affluent males you're trying to reach also have the ability and leisure. A billboard alongside the highway probably won't get scanned often.
Responsibly extend the visitor's experience by providing a specialized destination. There are currently several reasons to have a mobile-optimized website, mobile barcodes notwithstanding. If you intend to encourage mobile phone users to interact with your content, ensure that visitors can do so effectively.
Provide an obvious alternative that delivers an equally specialized landing page. As comScore's findings suggest, only about 6 percent of mobile subscribers are likely to try scanning a QR code. Make sure you provide an easy alternative for the other 94 percent of consumers -- always include the full URL. If you are particularly interested in mobile traffic, give consumers the option to interact with a text message -- which is also happens to be one of the most frequent uses for mobile phones, second only to placing calls.
Ensure that the code is campaign tagged and tracked. At the risk of sounding obvious, the best way to understand how any call to action performs is to measure it. Before embedding your URL in a QR code, make sure the address is unique to the point that you can say definitively that all visits to that URL were the result of a scan.
Test extensively, and recommend the right reader app to visitors. All QR readers are not created equal, and it will be important to test the codes used in your campaign against various devices. If your code is going to be printed, make it as simple and large as possible, because lighting conditions will greatly affect readability. Many people have found Google Goggles to be a very effective reader for both Android and iPhone, but the iOS version requires familiarity and configuration. Another good iOS alternative is called QR+. But again, be sure that you are prepared to help users understand how to get to the experience you're promoting.