Will the Holidays Save QR Codes?

First, SXSW.  Then, Facebook.  Then, NYC.  Now, it looks like the holidays are bringing QR codes with them.  It’s the time of the year when we receive loads of holiday circulars and it all started this past week.  I like these magazine-type circulars.  I like looking through them to see the sales and this year, at least, I like to see if the brands are making any effort to drive consumers deeper into the brand experience.  Well, judging by what I saw this week, they’re jumping all over the opportunity.

First, it was Best Buy.  I opened it up (I take as many opportunities as I can to remind my wife where she can get me an iPad), and the first thing I see is a big, fat QR code staring me in the face.  This really didn’t surprise me because I’ve noticed that Best Buy is now printing QR codes on all of their shelf price labels.

Best Buy QR Codes

Then, it was Target.  We’re on the lookout to help Santa, so of course, I had to see what kind of contribution Target could make.  And, bam, right there, 3 on 1 page.  I started to get real excited at this point, scanning codes, talking to myself, kind of freaking my family out.

Target QR Codes

And then, because I felt like we were on a roll with finding these little treasures, when I got our Geico newsletter/magazine, I just knew they had to be using them in some way.  So, I opened it up, and sure enough, QR codes sprinkled throughout.

Geico QR Codes

This whole 3-day experience really brought to light a few things for me, all of which made me happy:

  1. Brands (and the agencies supporting them) know what QR codes are.
  2. They’re not afraid to expose them to any type of consumer (tech, toys, insurance.)
  3. They’re taking the opportunity to drive consumers into a deeper brand experience.

I think these basic fundamental acknowledgements are important because it shows a level of comfort, from a brand’s standpoint, to introduce these codes to consumers, in such a mass-visibility way.  I suspect there is a little bit of experimentation going on, but they’re exposing them nonetheless.  Next question is whether or not consumers will know what to do with these.  I wonder how far off I really am – along with the general consumer – in expecting these codes to be included in print pieces like this?  By the time I got to the Geico magazine, I expected them to include QR codes.  And they did.

So, I believe sooner rather than later, consumers will expect these crazy-looking codes to be in magazines like this and perhaps more print pieces than not.  By seeing them in this type of collateral and on windows of their local businesses and at airports, they’re going to know that they can “unlock” some sort of information.  It’s really the “payoff” now – the content on the other end – that is going to drive expectations and perceived value.  The content is certainly more important than the code, but we have to start with the code and getting consumers familiar with them.

We’ve implemented quite a few code-based initiatives this year and have learned from each one of them.  Here are some best practices that we follow:

  1. Before creating the codes, understand what you are going to offer to the consumer once they scan the code.  Is it going to be a mobile version of your site?  Is it going to be a video?  Is it going to be a text?  Is it going to be a VCard?  You must answer this question before you get into creating the actual code.
  2. Creating the codes is the easy part.  We’ve used Kaywa and I’ve seen ScanLife a lot lately.  It’s a simple process, just follow the directions with whichever service you’re going to use.
  3. Understand where the code is going to be placed, when printed.  Is it going to be circular like this?  Or is it going to be on a poster?  Or is it going to be on a magazine ad?  You’ll need to include instructions for consumers to understand what it is and how to actually use it.  What kind of piece it’s going to be printed on will dictate the amount of instructional information you can include.  At the very least, let consumers know that they can a) scan the code for something else (more content, special offers, etc…) and b) how to do it.  This includes telling them what QR code reader application they need on their smartphone and that they need to take a picture of the code.
  4. If you have the means to use/implement a text messaging service, it would give the consumer another way to “unlock” the information without scanning a code.  Include this option in your instructions.
  5. Let consumers know – very clearly – what they can expect by scanning the code.  This can be a simple text description next to the code.
  6. And finally, if at all possible, make sure the content offered up on the “other side of the code” is appropriate to experience on a mobile phone.  If you can help it, don’t send them to the regular .com.  Send them to the mobile version of the site or even directly to a Vimeo/YouTube playlist.  The more valuable the content on the other side is, the more value consumers will perceive to be behind these codes.

QR codes are an ideal technology to enable the offline and the online to converge.  They’re so simple to create, if you have the wherewithal to use them and good content to use, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t include the codes on all of your printed pieces.  It’s good to see so many brands using them.  At the beginning of the year, I don’t feel like anyone really knew what QR codes were, certainly not the average consumer.  But if these holiday circulars are any sign of the times, it hasn’t taken long to learn.

11 thoughts on “Will the Holidays Save QR Codes?

  1. Brad Mays

    Love the best practices. I’m really interested to see where these technologies will end up. Barcodes, QR codes, etc seem like transition technologies in form. They’re not very good to look at. Barcodes are a bit more accessible, but still, relegated to the back of the box for a reason. Where it will get interesting is when the codes enable more unique experiences, allow the crowd to create or direct the experience and when you’ll be able to conduct business through them. This last category has huge potential. Don’t be surprised if by next year’s holiday season that you’ll not only be able to find more information through the code, but you can actually buy that iPad through the code when you scan it – in the circular or in real life. All of this will change the concept of point of sale. @bradmays

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  3. Mike Cearley Post author

    Lots of discussion this has caused, which I’m happy to see. Brad – agree on most everything you’re saying, and in fact, I’ve made the argument since the beginning of the year, when I started writing about QR codes (and the like), that their true potential is unlocking personal/unique experiences, although I don’t think that commerce is the only answer to that personal/unique experience. Their real potential and power lies in the fact that they can bridge the offline with the online. They can take a standard print piece (whether it’s a circular, an ad, a box even) and instantly drive to a digital/interactive experience. And if used the right way, the brand can use it as another touchpoint to drive consumers down the funnel. The jury is still out on QR codes. Do they need saving in the first place? Who in the world knows what they are? Or what they can do? I think these are all valid questions and I’ve asked these same questions throughout the year. Right now, I recognize the fact that brands are including them on their print pieces (which is a no-brainer IMO – they’re going to print these pieces anyway – why not include an opportunity for a deeper brand experience?) and because of this, exposing consumers to what these things are. The real adoption, if there ever is such a thing, will be determined by the value of the content behind the code – what the consumer sees after scanning the code. If they go through the trouble (and yes, I agree that there is a bit of a barrier to read these things) to scan the code and they don’t receive compelling/valuable content or an offer (coupon, etc…), they’ll likely not find value in these codes and not go through the trouble of scanning them again. However, if they find value in what’s behind the code, I think they stand a chance of catching on. As I said in the best practices in my post, it’s most important for brands to actually think about what’s going to be behind the code before even utilizing them on any materials. I’ve seen many codes throughout this past year, but few brands offer compelling/valuable content. So, the jury is still out. In the end, if used correctly, I believe they are an important technology in what I call the “new” OOH – they allow consumers to experience the brand on a deeper level through the places and things around us, outside of the home and there is incredible value to that.

  4. Jumpscan

    Mike, Totally agree with you and other commenters about the “ooh” and “ahh!” appeal of QR codes. Savvy marketers will need to create captivating and useful content on the virtual side of the equation to make it worthwhile to pursue. Some of the stumbling blocks will naturally disappear as QR readers become standard on new, web-enabled phones. (Think back to when you had to load a Netscape floppy to connect to the internet.) When the user experience becomes more seamless, and the content more compelling, we could reach a tipping point for QR codes that will make them live up to their hype.

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  6. Mike Cearley Post author

    Jumpscan – thanks for the comment. You are right on. I do believe that we’ll reach a tipping point, and I think it will be within the next year. I don’t think the main barrier is going to be readers on phones or people knowing/not knowing how to use them, it will be the content on the other end. If it’s content of value to consumers and like you say, a seamless user experience, I think the future is bright for 2D codes.

  7. Bob Roberts

    IMHO, this Q4 and Holiday period has seen a fair bit of QR inclusion in various campaigns. But, it seems half-baked and more of a “I’d better try it” kind of effort in most cases. There’s no really wonderful transition from print to mobile that is much more than a low-level “wow factor.”

    I’m also seeing the proliferation of new QR codes that can ONLY be scanned by (usually) proprietary iPhone Apps, and they can’t be read by standard QR code Readers. To the consumer, they look just like a QR code, but they act like something else. It’s like the QR industry is shooting itself in the foot. (Examples of this are usually around payment, contests and loyalty program Apps that integrate QR into the experience). Starbucks, Mobio, Mogotix, Wikkits, to name a few.

    With QR scans per Tag rarely reaching into the 5 digit range (and, only a small number have ever reached into the low 6 digit range), despite them now being “everywhere,” the attention and return they are delivering is really pretty small. If we see more sub-brand and proprietary App use of QR that confuses the consumer any further, I’d say 2010 would have been the peak for QR and we’ll see competitive technologies secure this market (LBS, NFC, etc.) Heck, I think that Google’s GOGGLES technology could render QR meaningless within 18 months.

    So, I guess I’m not drinking the Kool Aid on this one. But, I also know that a couple of big campaigns that succeed could turn this all around.

  8. Scott

    This is all great insight, and I agree with most of what has been discussed. QR codes are going to hit there tipping point within the next 6 months because there will be over 60,000 smartphones with 2D readers on them. 3 times them current number. I truly believe that they will be around for the next 2 years during the transition into better technology for image recognition, e.g. GoogleGoggles. Currently most phones, even smartphones, don’t have proper cameras for successful image recognition, but they are getting there.

    In regards to the content on the other end after the consumer scans, this is what needs to be the “wow” factor, not the QR code. First, brands must deliver mobilzed content that can be rendered on all devices and all service providers. Second, they must deliver something to the consumer…a coupon, a sweepstakes, how to buy now, videos, etc.The consumer is not going to scan to read more information about a product like what Best Buy does on their in-store executions. POINTLESS!

    Another point, is that as of now, brands must include SMS response with QR codes!!! Only 20-25K phones have 2D readers on them now, but there are 300k phones that can text. DON’T LOSE OUT ON THOSE CONSUMERS!

  9. Mike Cearley Post author

    Completely agree, Bob. There’s lots of experimentation going on and if too much more goes on with no value to the consumer, the ones who can scan these things without getting frustrated won’t because they’ll equate them to something that provides no value. Re: the proprietary apps – even though it’s proprietary, I think MS Tags have provided the most consistent experience in terms of scanning sensitivity. I have always been able to get to content through a MS Tag and QR codes have been hit or miss for me and to your point, work better with some readers than others. You raise an interesting point re: whether or not we’ve already seen the boom of this kind of technology, only to be overrun by another, more effective tech next year. We will see. It’s going to be interesting for sure. The one thing I do feel confident about is that in the coming year we will see more and more brands connecting the offline with the online through various technologies and hopefully, they’ll get better at it than they were this year.

  10. Mike Cearley Post author

    Yes, great points & suggestions, Scott. Agree with most everything here, too. I don’t know that having the reader automatically on your phone will affect their use? Perhaps what we’re seeing now will only be magnified with more phones/people? It’s all about the experience/content on the other side. Once brands figure that out and actually deliver value to the consumer, then we might actually see movement in adoption.

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