If you’re thinking about using a QR code, don’t. There’s often a better way, people. QR codes are not a necessary evil.
QR codes were developed to quickly track vehicles during the automotive manufacturing process. They were an innovative way to use ubiquitous and always-ready scanners with the sole task of quickly tracking consistently tagged automotive parts in a completely controlled environment.
The problem is, things look very different in the sphere of mainstream consumers:
- Not everyone has a scanner—or even access to a scanner (according to a recent study, only 6.2% of people in the U.S. scanned a QR code on their mobile device)
- Scanners aren’t always ready to go
- Smartphones aren’t designed for scanning codes, so while we’ve adapted the technology so they can scan, smartphones are much more capable than this
- QR codes are used inconsistently—they don’t all do perform the same function
- Scanning conditions and QR code destinations aren’t optimized for the environment
- It’s not the standard way to access any kind of information, and QR codes are far and few between
Even still, you might say, “But we’ve adapted QR codes to better uses for brand interactions!” So let me explain why, no, QR codes are not the answer.
QR codes don’t really solve a problem in the marketplace.
The “problem” QR codes try to solve is the process of getting to a digital resource from a nondigital medium. They are a competing technology to manual entry and, the way I see it, not much of an improvement.
Because text entry is standard, it’s expected, and consumers’ experiences using it as a means to information will meet those expectations.
Typing isn’t perceived to be a barrier to information imposed by the brand. But when a brand uses a QR code, they’re making a choice to use a nonstandard method of accessing information, and anyone alienated by that method can rightfully blame the brand.
Unless you’re purposely trying to exclude people from accessing information, you’ll have to provide an alternative way to access it, typically involving manual text entry on the user’s part.
In this case, you’re over-messaging to some consumers (risking confusion and distraction) and sending sending mixed messages to the rest (should I scan or should I type?).
It doesn’t make downloading an app significantly easier—but it does make it a more passive and absent-minded activity.
Using a QR code to launch an app download is an often-cited “best practice” for QR codes, but I’m not convinced.
I’d argue that the extra “effort” it takes to search the app by name in an App Store is better for committing the brand and app to memory and consequently, promotes loyalty of the app. Now I realize that’s a stretch, but it’s a stretch I’m willing to make when QR codes completely strip brand cues from the experience, leaving no possibility that the brand has left the same impression on consumers.
Manually searching for the app is also a much more deliberate behavior than scanning an anonymous QR code, which users do with little thought or intention. While it might make QR codes appear more convenient, is the slight improvement in convenience worth the sacrifice? Don’t you want your audience to be consciously involved in brand interactions?
Yes, you do.
Neither method is completely superior to the other, I’ll concede, but because QR codes might actually prevent people from accessing the content (and because you’ll need different QR codes for different mobile platforms, creating more potential for user error), why bother?
Was the QR code created to launch the video, or was the video created to be launched by the QR code?
Mobile video viewing is quite often not the preferred way to receive marketing information. It requires a quiet environment or headphones, a strong and steady data connection and most importantly, sustained attention. It’s not as easy to consume as, say, reading a blurb. It’s also not as compatible with existing technologies for sharing or reviewing.
If you find that your messaging needs a video or sound clip, you’re probably over-messaging. But if you insist you’re not and still really feel that you really need a video, it’s clearly very important and you shouldn’t make mobile the only way to access it. You’ll have better luck at ensuring the proper viewing environment if your audience can access it from home—unless you’re ok with being responsible for someone’s less-than-perfect experience.
Yes, QR codes can launch mobile sites, but they are the least important part of a mobile presence.
Your focus should be on making your mobile site easy to find and easy to use from a mobile device, not only on making it a little easier for a few people to get to it (assuming they’re in front of a QR code). I should be able to do a quick search in my mobile browser for your brand and be able to find the site (which should be optimized for mobile). I shouldn’t need to scan a QR code.
Ask yourself, “Is it necessary that someone be able to access our mobile site from wherever this QR code is located?” If the answer is no, then don’t use one.
Two of the most common kind of QR codes I see lead to sites that aren’t mobile friendly or a brand’s social media profile. If someone scans a QR code and brought to a site that isn’t optimized for mobile, they will hate you. If someone scans a QR code and is brought to a brand’s Facebook Page, there’s a good chance they’ll also hate you because, be honest, who’s logged into their Facebook account on their mobile web browser? We have apps for that.
Also keep in mind that mobile sites accessed from third-party QR code readers are subject to their banner ads and the constraints of the app’s browsing “capabilities.”
Most puzzling are the mysteriously lonely QR codes with no cues or context to give you any idea what they do.
People don’t know what to expect from QR codes. There are no cues to content or behavior. All QR codes look the same to humans. Will it open a website? Will it open a video? What about an app? What if I want to access this information later on a computer?
If I can’t talk you out of using a QR code, at least provide some direction and context for it. Consumers should (at the very least) know what they’re about to scan.
But even now that you’ve provided context and direction, the instructions on getting a code reader and using the QR code compete with your carefully crafted messaging. If you really want consumers to act on something, then give them one thing to act on. And if you’re going to make that action “get a QR code reader,” then you’re not doing anyone any favors.
QR codes greatly increase the possibility of failure.
The process of scanning a QR code involves many user- and computer-performed steps, which greatly increases the potential for some sort of error. QR codes were developed for use in a tightly controlled environment for a very specific computer-driven purpose. The technology was not designed for situations in which users don’t have scanners, don’t have data service, don’t have the lighting or the placement necessary for scanning, and so on. Frankly, it makes little sense to try to adapt QR codes for your marketing purposes.
When brands use a QR code, they sacrifice a lot of control for the convenience of a very small group of people. QR codes don’t add any more value than they take away from existing ways to get information. If QR codes didn’t exist, we’d still be able to do everything we currently do with them—at least as well if not better.
Ask yourself, “is this the ONLY information my audience needs and is it the BEST way for them to receive it?”
My advice: Don’t use QR codes. And if you do, don’t make it essential for people to use the QR code. It’s a barrier to information that not everyone can get through.
What do you think about QR codes? Are there situations in which they do provide a significant improvement to manual entry? Tell me in the comments.