(Not) The Year of the QR Code

Last year around this time, I wrote a post about the Holidays saving QR Codes. At the time, I noticed them in about every print piece/holiday circular we received in the mail, and from that standpoint, I was interested in how it would affect these codes – being introduced into homes via these circulars that everyone, especially the “average” consumer is likely to look at. Would it make them (us) familiar with them to know what they were and what they did? Including them and distributing them in holiday circulars seemed like a pretty good idea to accomplish this. So, while I don’t believe that the holidays “saved” QR codes by any stretch of the imagination (more on that below), I do think they were appropriate to include in those pieces and I do think they were on the forefront of QR code mania that has ensued this past year, and from that standpoint, I think they created a level of awareness. Even if it was, “what in the world is that?”

Since then, it’s been interesting to see how QR codes have played out. All throughout the year, I think everyone can agree that QR codes have popped up everywhere. Not only in the mail, but on posters and signs and sides of buildings and everything else. It is certainly not uncommon to see QR codes plastered on many things – big and small – out in the real world.

And now, a year after circulars, as I unpack our Christmas gifts and groceries, I see them making their way into our homes via the products we buy. My son got a guitar for Christmas and look what’s right on front:

QR code on guitar box

And then, switching to groceries, before I put the Granola Bars box up in the pantry, what do I see:

QR code on granola box

All this to say, I don’t think QR codes have an awareness problem anymore.

I think QR codes have a usage problem.

That’s the long and short of it.

A good solid year after being introduced into our everyday lives, in many ways, QR codes are more value-less now than they were a year ago when hardly anyone knew what they were (or that they even existed).

Comscore did a study around QR code usage that they published in August 2011. In it, they found that “6.2% of the total mobile audience scanned a QR code on their mobile device” in a 1-month period. To put this into perspective, a recent Pew study found that 28% use mobile/social location based services (including, but not limited to Foursquare and the like). The net – not a lot of people are scanning/using QR codes.

We could probably talk for days and days about why this is so, but in the end, it boils down to value. No matter what the technology-of-the-day is, if it doesn’t provide value – and now more than ever, immense value – it’s going to be hard to garner mass adoption. Sure, there’s value in learning more about a product with the scan of a code (equivalent to a click of a button), or being able to easily LIKE a brand, or even getting a coupon on the spot, but there’s hardly consistency. And, in the case of QR codes, so much inconsistency and non-value, I believe the perception is that, by and large, they are just “weird looking codes that send you to a website.” So, the intrigue and potential has already lost its intrigue due to a year of poor executions.

Maybe this year, we’ll see that change. And this year, we’ll actually see an evolution of QR code usage. Maybe people will come around. Maybe brands will come around and figure out great ways to use this technology. I still believe it’s one with lots of potential, but if we go through another year of circulars and posters and sides of buildings and product boxes delivering a normal website upon a scan, that will be the time that we can perhaps call them dead.

They’re barely alive as it is.


8 thoughts on “(Not) The Year of the QR Code

  1. Andrew Siegel

    Interesting perspective. I think you hit on one key reason for low usage, but missed another – speed of access. If I scan a QR code it can take anywhere from 10 seconds to 5 minutes to pull up the destination site. Now granted, I am not using an LTE enabled phone, but neither is >90% of the population. So what I am supposed to do for those 5 mins, just hang out in the store? As data speeds progress I think the use of these codes will become much more pervasive as their usefulness increases dramatically.

    As for QR codes on in-home products, while I do see their value, unless you have an iPad, I think there is a missing step. Am I going to scan them and then review the information presented with my phone when I have a full-sized laptop 5′ away? Or am I supposed to email the destination URL to myself so I can view the information on a full-sized browser? Either way, I hate trying to use mobile web pages due to the screen constraints AND speed issues, so why not just give me the URL I can type in?

    I think the push of tablets with integrated cameras (is there one on the Kindle Fire?) into the home will have a big impact, as will the increase bandwidth of the new generation of phones. But until these hurdles are crossed, these useful tools are still on life-support.

  2. Rosanne Gain

    Thanks for the insightful article. We are considering using a QR code on our updated business cards and for our trade show booth. We will take the concerns you raised under consideration as we make our decision about “if” and “how” we use it. Andrew’s comments are also appreciated.

  3. Bob Stovall

    I am what I would call a knowledgeable average user of technology, hardly a geek, but not a Luddite for sure. I have scanned QR Codes on a few occasions – mostly out of curiosity. While somewhat fascinated with the gee-gaw affect, most of the time it leads to nothing useful. In your two photo examples, you already bought the product – what value does the code offer?

    I very rarely even click on links in social media posts simply because I have too much to read and do already. The tweet or post really has to spark my interest before I go beyond it. Likewise with a QR code. Both you and Andrew are absolutely right. I need a strong reason to scan a code, or even go to a website for a product I have purchased, unless there is added value. I normally research anticipated purchases long before I see a QR. With my mediocre Droid phone, it can be a pain to try to to download information.

  4. Brad Mays

    Good post, Mike. Couldn’t agree more that there needs to be more usefulness if not more creativity in how QR codes are used. Like the evolution of most technologies, too many marketers get complacent in using the technology and not looking beyond the code itself. They don’t use it to bring people into an experience that’s enabled by the code or add value in some way, but rather they call it done by printing the code on the box and wonder why they don’t see the returns they’d like.

    Besides, I’ve always seen them as a transition technology. Eventually, image recognition and shape recognition will replace the funny-looking squares on boxes. Maybe by then marketers will figure out that they have to do more to draw people in.

    In the end, a code is just a vehicle or channel to another experience that’s part of a larger program. There’s over-thinking it, and then there are mediocre executions. And, the world is full of those.

  5. Patrick Donnelly


    Ive written several posts about this topic. I run a blog called QrArts.com

    Usage is an interesting situation. QR is used mainly as a add on after thought. Most people dont have the budget for a mobile ux, but are willing to slap one on a print ad for free. This creates a problem of mixed expectations. There usually is no point to scanning ( exemptions exist ), but I think they have good intentions by some. Its just hard to filter out the noise and the good experiences.

    Good review. Thanks for sharing. -Patrick

  6. Patrick Donnelly

    Also at a very basic level, I think people need to use language better to explain why people should scan. ie. Why they should care, what they get. QR codes have played their part where they are just a tool now – nothing to be impressed with but used to get something else.


  7. Carl Sharpe

    Very interesting article Patrick. We have been involved with QR codes for quite sometime (both design and the backend systems) and have been evangalists of their useage over the past year.

    You are perfectly correct that there should be a valid reason for the end user to wish to scan any QR code, and also to be confident that they will be taken to a legitimate website that will enhance the media they are viewing. One of our popular usages is in garden centres to give expanded information where there is simply so little space on the labeling for individual plants.

    But just as important is that the site loads fast! Waiting 5 mins is crazy and I am not surprised that those codes have such poor results.. We are working on mobilised websites for our clients (our own is currently in development) pushing this very point. When someone has gone to the trouble of scanning in the first place, make sure they continue to have a good experience! More relevent information, vouchers, subscriptions, etc.

    QRs are definitely not ‘dead’, but the land rush to use them will mature over the next year to provide much more meaningful content.

  8. Mike Cearley Post author

    Andrew – always great to hear from you. Thanks for stopping by. Couldn’t agree more on access. I think as the mobile technology evolves, so will image recognition (as Brad mentions) and then codes might a) disappear or b) play a different role.

    Bob – In terms of the in-home use – the one on the guitar box was actually a good experience. It sends you to a YouTube video on Basics of Playing Guitar. The one on the granola box took you to the FB page whereupon I needed to sign into FB (which on my mobile is a pain) and then was directed to the brand page. In both cases, the purpose was to connect you to relevant content quickly and that relevant content was geared to you owning the product. So, from that standpoint, there’s value. In both cases, simply printing a URL on the box might accomplish the same thing and provide a better experience? Would it be as compelling? Don’t know.

    Roseanne – printing codes on business cards is a good practice, in my opinion. I would suggest that you include just enough personal information on the cards so that you do no rely completely on the codes for users to connect with you.

    Brad – nice. I think you are one step ahead of the game that it’s just a vehicle to another piece of the story in a campaign/program. If they were used in this way, I could see immediate value in them. Problem is, they hardly are. As you know, they’re just providing access to “normal” information, hardly deepening the brand experience.

    Patrick – absolutely right on simplicity of printing a code vs. mobilizing their site. In these cases, I would push brands to think about specific pieces of content (ie, pictures or videos), not “sites.” And expectations/intrigue are not set around these codes so that certainly needs to be addressed.

    Carl – plants are an ideal physical object to drive deeper, valuable engagement via these codes.

    Thank you, all, for the comments. This is clearly a technology that creates interest, has potential, and a good bit of thinking around it. Maybe we’ll see it all come together this year.

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