The Basics of QR Codes

There is a lot of talk among e-commerce pros on the topic of mobile marketing–and for good reason. One study found that the use of smartphones for product research grew by 320 percent between August and November of 2011 alone.

One intriguing new tool spawned by smartphone proliferation is the QR code. For those who don’t know, QR (quick response) codes are those pixelated, black-and-white stamps commonly found on product packages, posters, buses, and the backs of youth’s heads, and are easily scannable using any number of free smartphone apps. Essentially, the QR code is a two-dimensional barcode with an exceptional capacity for data storage and fast retrieval.

Room for Growth

The marketing potential for QR codes is immense. With a quick scan, users can instantly retrieve text, video, links, and more. One can imagine myriad uses a savvy marketer might make of such a potent tool. However, the reality is that QR codes have yet to catch on, despite the best mediocre efforts of retailers.

A recent Forrester Research study found that a mere 5 percent of Americans with smartphones were scanning QR codes as of mid-2011. Although many sources have QR scanning on the rise, that small a number has many wondering, “why bother?”

The Daily Show QR code

Does this scream, “Scan me!”?

Analysts have varying hypotheses about this small proportion of QR enthusiasts. For one, although it seems every man, woman, child, primate, and marsupial is a smartphone owner/expert, many might not know exactly how to find or use QR scanning apps. Another common theory is that the apps themselves are too inconsistent.

QR Content Underwhelms Consumers

Perhaps the most honest explanation for the public’s reaction is that the folks who employ QR codes do so with–to use scientific jargon–crappy understanding and little creativity. Marketing content must be well conceived and executed in order to capitalize. Or, as Kelli Robertson of AKQA marketing agency put it, “If you are not paying off [the QR scan] with content that’s rewarding or valuable, then the experience falls flat and consumers won’t use it again.”

Furthermore, many retailers seem obsessed with using QR codes only for social media and other trifling purposes, as opposed to, oh I don’t know, connecting to product details? While a shopper may or may not want to alert their Facebook friends that they were at Hot Topic at 2:15 and McDonald’s at 3:22, they very well may be interested in knowing a pair of bedazzled Capris is made by fair-trade labor with ecologically responsible sequins.

The QR code is rife with possibilities, so long as you understand how they are most efficiently used–and most commonly misused. It seems if marketers have the patience and imagination to keep educating people about QR codes and start linking them to great content, the effort will almost certainly pay dividends. Stay tuned for my next post where I’ll compare, contemplate, and criticize some good and bad examples of QR efforts.