iMedia Connection

The dangers of being blinded by the trendy QR code

Chris Tanner

QR codes are popping up everywhere. Living next to one of the premier shopping areas in Silicon Valley (Santana Row), I see them every day while I walk the ritualistic mile through "The Row" to Starbucks with my 4-year-old son. The latest QR marketing example witnessed is a menacing one; the 4-foot-tall code stands guard like a dragon over the courtyard in front of our local Starbucks, spitting fire at you in the form of edge-to-edge black and white. The dragon challenges "Scan Code" in small blocky letters.

It must have been menacing to the local constables as well; once my son and I witnessed three of them crowding the sign with their morning brew discussing the new sentry. Interestingly enough, the local constables all had their iPhones front and center -- we are in Silicon Valley after all. My son and I endeavored to help.

"It's a QR code," I interjected, not able to resist. "You use it to get things on your phone."

"GET IT," my 4 1/2-year-old son chimed in shamelessly. (Wow, all the brainwashing paid off.)

"What's it for? Do I need a reader? How do I get one?" asked officer No. 1.

Two minutes later, after an intense-yet-fruitless educational discussion about QR readers in the App Store, the officers dispersed without having scratched the itch cleverly set up by the marketer who created the sign. We couldn't hold the attention of even one officer long enough to get him to download our favorite QR reader and scan the code. Ah well. If he had, based on our recent experience, it is unlikely the content would have been memorable anyway. On a brighter note, at least he has an iPhone, so maybe once someone shows him how to download a decent QR scanner app (is there a QR for that?), he will have a good chance of being able to access content from QR codes. 

Hey, in theory, the idea of taking a picture instead of using a phone keyboard to hack out some overly long and complicated URL seems like a great innovation. I first witnessed QR codes several years back on frequent trips to Tokyo where mobile standards are in fact standards. In Japan, consumers' phones come with QR readers pre-installed and have supported a consistent mobile web (WAP) experience for years. In this case, there is something to that old saying "a picture is worth a thousand words" -- especially when you are typing a URL on a mobile phone. In Japan, the technology and usage have become ubiquitous to the point where users have access to technology, codes are used regularly, and consumers are comfortable with QR being a standard process for getting content on mobile.  

Here in the U.S., although QR codes continue to gain momentum with marketers, technology platform providers like Apple, Google, and RIM have not standardized and included the QR reader technology. How many ways do you actually choose to navigate to content? Are you an SMS keyword person? In many campaigns, 40-60 percent of our users choose SMS texting over QR when both options are presented -- even if the SMS call to action is small.

Are you an App Store browser? Are you a Google searcher? Or have you downloaded 10 different QR apps and finally found one that works well enough that, on a moment's notice, you can flip your phone out like a Trekkie and scan codes as you walk into your local Starbucks? Maybe you are one of the few that actually clicks on web iTunes links, waits patiently for iTunes to launch and update, and then are perfectly at ease making a content decision for your mobile on a PC.  

The bottom line is that, here in the U.S., we have continually seen a double-digit percentage of people using each form of mobile call to action we provide -- MT SMS, MT email, QR, SMS keyword, and on-device URL. QRs are a very useful ingredient in the mobile engagement mix, and they show great promise in that they scale well and are relatively easy to use in static environments such as print and in retail venues.

Fundamentally for marketers, QR provides a simple call to action to instantly deliver on-device content from offline media. In its purest form, QR allows marketers to connect to mobile users -- and this makes good QR a general purpose marketing technology. It can be used in magazines and other print (according to comScore, 49 percent of QR users engage here), product packaging (35 percent engage), posters, business cards, storefronts, TV, and even on websites. It can link to any online content -- websites, coupons, apps (via special URLs), videos, music, pictures, and even social media like Facebook.

Still, QR codes cannot be "remembered" by consumers as they walk by. They cannot even be used to provide an impression of a brand, content item, or even the URL they represent. They can also be difficult to use online as certain combinations of computer screens and phone cameras cause them not to function properly. Finally, the QR reader apps vary highly in quality and are not properly standardized. For instance, my favorite iPhone reader doesn't work at all for my Blackberry 9700 Bold even though the app runs.

So, QR codes are useful, but they are just one part of the big picture. Here are a few things to keep in mind when marketing to mobile users from off device.

Don't use QR codes in isolation
Be sure to include an SMS call to action along with a QR code. In June, nearly 70 percent of the U.S. mobile audience sent a text message (the number hits 95 percent among 18- to 29-year olds) vs. 6.2 percent who scanned a QR code.

Allow users to connect in whatever way they want
Many users have established their own usage patterns or may just feel more comfortable with certain calls to action. Provide QR codes and SMS keywords in print. Try QR codes from your website but also enable your website to send SMS from a form. Try everything and monitor your results to determine what works best for your audience.

Take advantage of your existing channels with high engagement
Does your website have a lot of traffic? Do you have a ton of Facebook fans? Already doing TV or print advertising? Be sure to coordinate across your various marketing spends to drive efficiency. Don't let your mobile marketing efforts live in a silo.

Get users onto their device fast
If you want a user to take a mobile action, you want them on their phone. Now. The majority of app purchases happen on device. Even with iTunes, many iPhone users never connect their phone to their computer. From your website or online marketing, it's best to embed a simple call to action with a clear path to the handset (e.g., a form that sends an SMS message to the phone) on your landing page. Users are much more likely to engage when they know they'll connect on their phone without PC-based application stores getting in their way.

As you create your mobile marketing strategy and tactics, avoid being blinded by a single trendy tactic like QR codes. Keep an eye on the big picture by providing alternative calls to action, and never stop testing your results. And just maybe your audience won't need to slay any dragons to get your cool new mobile app.

Chris Tanner is CEO of GET IT Mobile.

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