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The wrong way to use QR codes

The right ad for the right person at the right time. That's the promise of digital marketing, right?

Sadly, not so much. During the "turn off your electronic devices" part of a flight last week, my laptop and Kindle were temporarily deactivated, prompting a brief perusal of the in-flight magazine in which (shock and horror!) some enterprising and deluded advertisers had included QR codes -- QR codes -- in their ads.

You tell me: What are you supposed to do with a QR code at 30,000 feet where the phone stays off (even if you can use a laptop)?

If you think this is an isolated phenomenon, think again. QR codes are hardly uncommon in New York City subway car ads, another zero-bars-of-signal environment.

We've spent something like 15 years now getting the basics of digital right. So why is it that in the rush to embrace new channels, the fundamentals are still getting lost in the shuffle?

Not "what" but "why"
Innovation is cool. It's why many of us left our gigs in traditional media to explore new paths (and cool new toys) in interactive. We have jobs to do as digital marketers. Keeping up with the latest technologies comprises no small part of that. So does keeping them in perspective.

Yes, QR codes are mobile. Mobile is cool. It's growing exponentially, and smartphone sales are off the charts. Using a QR code in an ad indicates that you're innovative, ahead of the curve, and have additional information to share with the audience that interacts with your ads.

But getting more fundamental than that, a QR code at its most essential is nothing more (or less) than marketing at its most fundamental -- it's a call-to-action. There is no reason whatsoever -- none -- to prompt a customer action, or interaction, that's impossible to execute. You're not serving the customer, nor are you serving your career goals if campaign ROI is based, at least in part, on interactions with a non-functional QR code.

Is interaction possible?
Back in the day (maybe 10 or so years ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth), before social networks, Web 2.0, and HTML5, quality assurance was a near-constant theme in publications such as this one. Did the ad execution work in all possible browsers and operating systems? Did it render well on monitors of different dimensions? Was the email legible in every known mail client?

As talk of such matters has diminished, so apparently has the practice of quality assurance. It's not just QR codes. Even basic web browsing is becoming littered with sloppy stumbling blocks and UX catastrophes.

Facebook, for example, threw up a chat sidebar a week ago that won't close on a MacBook Pro running Firefox. Facebook's instructions on how to close it don't work. To get rid of it, you have to connect to a large monitor, or launch Safari.

A major magazine publisher is throwing a pop-up over editorial copy exhorting readers to subscribe to its newsletters. However, all the check-boxes for individual newsletters, not to mention the fields in which you'd enter an email address and click "submit," are in a remote, unreachable south-of-the-equator realm. You can't scroll down the pop-up, making this business-goal-imperative call-to-action nothing more (or less) than a UX roadblock.

Then there's that hyperlink on a major financial services site. Click it and a 404 message appears. In addition to a "page not found" message, it suggests the user get in touch with the site's administrator and tell them "what you did wrong." (Italics added for emphasis.)

Now who's siloed?
In that decade-ago era when quality assurance was at the forefront of interactive, another issue was on the front burner. In a word, it could be summed up with the word "silo." Interactive -- it was nearly universally claimed -- was siloed apart from other marketing and strategic functions and hence not getting its rightful place at the table. (Perhaps that bid for recognition resulted in more carefully executed campaigns.)

Now that digital does indeed sit at the table (often at the head), it seems to be suffering from a new sort of silo syndrome. Rather than being cut off from other marketing and strategic functions, digital is becoming siloed from within -- hence, the collapse of quality.

Sure, you can blame non-functional pop-ups, illegible emails, awkward messaging, and non-functional QR codes on staff cutbacks and bad economies, but I think it's something bigger. The mobile folks (or agency folks) aren't talking to the web or strategy folks. Developers need to get to the next item in the queue, not check the execution on every possible browser and platform -- and no one has their back. Marketing selected a name and a tagline before the search team conducted keyword research.

When digital was newer, when it was out proving itself, it had to work harder. It still should. There are more moving parts (and new technologies every day). There's an exponentially greater need for integration of disparate business goals, technologies, platforms, and messaging than there ever was in decades of traditional marketing. It's just too early to fall down on the job.

Digital marketers, it's time again to break down those silos. This time, the ones you constructed yourselves.

Rebecca Lieb is an author, speaker, and consultant specializing in digital marketing, advertising, publishing, and media.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Rebecca Lieb has published more research on content marketing than anyone else in the field.  As a strategic adviser, her clients range from start-up to non-profits to Fortune 100 brands and regulated industries. She's worked with brands...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Kelly McIvor

2011, August 08

Great article, Rebecca. The QR code fail, and others like it, is in part a symptom of a lack of strategy. Had the marketers been thinking about their objectives and customers (i.e., who they are and *where* they are) they might have realized a QR code in an in-flight magazine was a bad move. Mobile needs a seat at the table separate from - or at least on the lap of - Digital.

For a fun read try www.mobilemarketingfail.com

Commenter: Brian Raines

2011, July 19

Some great points...QR codes will only enter mainstream when marketing realize and follow some basic best practices with regard to their usage... #1 Mobile-optimized landing pages #2 Value exchange with the consumer for scanning (mobile coupon, discount offer, unique content, etc) #3 Use a QR code campaign management tool to create, manage and track usage (to improve the user experience!) Our FREE QR code campaign management and point-&-click mobile web page builder at http://www.linkblots.com does all this and more - you should check it out if you are looking for a no-risk way to enter the QR code and mobile web space as a business.