The Problem with QR Codes

Update: for examples of good and bad use of QR in advertising see:

QR Success and

QR Fail

See new article, How to Make QR Codes Work in Advertising

Whilst writing an article about using 2d or QR codes in direct mail, I started to think about why they haven’t really taken off. OK, in Japan everything has a QR code on it, from ad response, to sandwich wrappers (these will show the nutritional information), but the Japanese attitude to technology is very different to other countries. And have you ever tried texting in Japanese? There is evidence that QR codes are being used elsewhere in a variety of interesting ways. In France, magazines such as Public (like the French Heat magazine) use QR codes at the bottom of each page. Scanning them takes the reader to more content from the article. Recently in the UK, the free London paper, Metro has used QR codes in the same way. In the US, the codes are used in direct response TV, where a 45 second commercial is extended into a longer engagement with the user being taken to more videos and offers. In the UK Pepsi used QR codes on their Pepsi Max cans 2008. Although there are no figures reporting their success, if it had worked well I think we would have been told. Marks and Spencer experimented with QR vouchers on their juice packs in 2009. Again, the response appeared to be low. In many ways, QR on food packaging makes sense. With all the nutritional information, there is little room to put things like offers, but a 2d barcode can include nearly 700 words of information in a space as small as 25mm. The problem is that they are just not catching on with mobile users.

Effort vs Reward

When looking at the adoption of any technology it’s always about the relationship between effort and reward. SMS, for example required very little effort, but the reward was a cheap, fast means of communication. When teenagers got onto it, there was no stopping SMS. With QR, the effort is both downloading the reader (few phones have them), taking the picture of the code and awaiting the response. A few years ago, most of the industry thought that QR would take off when the readers were available in all phones. Since then, we have seen a shift in mobile usage where downloading and installing apps is common-place. If smartphone users want to use QR then they will download the app, without question. So, lack of QR readers on phones isn’t really a barrier. The reason they don’t use them is that the reward simply isn’t enough. Whilst it may solve problems for brands, 2d barcodes doesn’t solve anything for the user. Take the Pepsi QR code. All it did was link to a WAP site with more content. There was no offer, discount or anything engaging enough to bother to take the picture of the code.

The other problem that many users have with QR is that it simply doesn’t work very well. For a code to scan well it needs to be done it good light, on a high contrast background. I tried to scan QR code on a pavement in Paris a few years ago. The white, slightly fuzzy code on the dark grey pavement refused to scan. And there’s nothing to drive people away from technology than a poor user experience. That is particularly the case in mobile. For many response campaigns the alternative to QR are SMS shortcodes. We are all familiar with those, and you only have to look at things like reality TV voting to see that people will use them. After all, when you send an SMS it works 100% of the time. From a user perspective, why bother with QR when there is a much better option that is just as faster and far more effective?