QR Codes And The Great Lunchbag Letdown

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Mobile Marketing professionals are very excited about QR codes and their marketing prowess. I’m a little less excited.

In theory, QR Codes sound awesome. Your consumer sees an advertisement that engages them, they whip out their mobile device, snap a picture of the QR code that sits on the advertisement and they’re suddenly catapulted into an immersive brand experience that can live beyond the physical limitations of a print ad. This is what advertising integration has promised for over a decade. We’re finally at a unique moment in time where capturing a QR code is becoming much more commonplace as people not only what it is (and how to get it), but it’s no longer a really geeky thing to do. On top of that, mobile technology is solid. You can do some pretty amazing things in the palm of your hand.

Too bad we’re mucking it up (again).

Shill, pitch or give up data. Is that the best we can do? I’ve been biting my tongue for months on this (and yes, there are always a handful of exceptions to the rule), but we’re really missing the boat (err… opportunity) here (again). Every time I make the effort to launch my QR code reader and stick it in front of an ad, I’m confronted with either a pretty lame mobile version of a website (which is full of random calls to action that have no bearing on me and where I physically am) or it’s some kind of loyalty scheme where I can sign up to get an e-blast or some such.

You have me. Create an experience.

Having a QR code on an ad simply to pander to the clients and checkbox the "mobile marketing" portion of your integrated advertising campaign is not only a bad advertising experience it’s a really negative brand experience that lingers. Think of the additional effort and permission that a customer is giving you to take out their mobile and spend the time to access your additional goodness… and that’s what you give them? Marketers have to up their game. A link to a YouTube video is simply not enough. Mobile – in and of itself – is a unique experience, so if you can’t take the time to creatively think about how a QR code component to your campaign can really be something special for those who walk the extra mile with your brand – especially taking into account where they are when they access it – you may as well drop it from your marketing mix.

It’s not too late.

As more and more people download QR code readers and tinker with the technology, it still has not been adopted by the masses. It’s not as big/vital as text messaging and it’s not nearly as popular as other mobile apps (yet). That’s the good news. Let’s chalk all of this really bad QR code marketing up to "experimentation", but it’s time to move on. Let’s start getting both strategic and creative in doing something that matters when people grab on to your brand from the palm of their hand. Think about utilitarian marketing, think about something unique, think about something captivating and think about giving them something exclusive (something just for them). The idea here is to capture them and make them want to share your QR code experience. Get them to talk about it and – ultimately – turn to everyone around them and say, "you gotta check this out!" The bar is currently set pretty low, so there’s some good ground for some smart marketers to gain.

Mobile marketing needs to scream, "you gotta check this out!" Right?

(blog note: just saw this article on a flight: MobileInsider – How Not to Dig a QR Rabbit Hole… there must be something in the air).


  1. I have to admit, I have had a QR reader on my phone for sometime and rarely scan codes when I see them as I don’t see a reason on the ad to scan the code. The code just sits there, looking lonely, with no reason to exist.
    When an advertiser gives me a reason to scan, I will make the effort, and I hope it will be worth it. That being said I am interested in QR success stories, I see them used at Events and Conferences with some buzz around them.

  2. You nailed it, Mitch. For the small percentage of people who will actually scan the QR code, the marketer should give them an amazing experience. A few ideas:
    1) A mobile treasure hunt ending with a significant value / prize? (“Turn around, walk 450 feet and scan the QR code on the bus stop for the next clue.”).
    2) An exclusive / unreleased song or piece of content that isn’t anywhere else and the ability for them to share it with their friends / followers, making the consumer the hero (and completely trackable – Avinash would be proud).
    3) A code the consumer could redeem immediately in the physical world. (“Good for a free _____ at your nearest ______ for the next 24 hours).
    Yes, these would take some additional coordination and work by the agency but scanning a QR code takes additional work by the consumer and they should be rewarded.

  3. So far the bar has been set pretty low, and given how ubiquitous QR code readers were in some markets and on decent mobiles for years, it is a surprise that we have not seen anything good come out of the USA and Australia (where I am) up to this point.
    In fact the best use of a QR code I can remember recently was in a Metromony video clip released online ahead of their new album. It sent the user to a very simple email subscribe form, with a simple offer; sign up and receive a free mp3 of the song from the video clip.
    As you said, at this stage, a good implementation of a QR code for a campaign doesn’t need to be elaborate or at the bleeding edge of technology to be effective. It just needs to cover the fundamentals and simply work.

  4. Wow, someone actually talking about what to do AFTER someone takes the time to scan the code!
    Personally, I don’t expect an amazing experience, but I do expect an adequate and appropriate experience. If it’s a restaurant, I’d like a little coupon for me and a friend if I follow whatever they are offering. If it’s a band, give me a song and a thank you.
    I see it as a small micro-transaction of saying thank you from the business for paying attention.

  5. I’m with Chris (or Seth) on this one; it doesn’t have to blow me away but being relevant and engaging certainly helps. The best experience I recall were QR codes on a Niagara wine label which listed pairings with food and additional recipes.

  6. So, on the negative side QR isn’t hitting its potential, that’s clear… On the positive side as you’ve mentioned, it really isn’t fully utilized by the public so they need to take advantage of that. Make it all about a user experience now before it’s too late in the game.
    Interesting article Mitch; as always you have me thinking…

  7. Agree 100% you here Mitch. QR Codes have appeared like a rash across outdoor, press, online and even TV but like you say, the majority are failing to use them to deliver an engaging/useful UX. Even worse is when people put them in places that mean the code won’t work – like really close the binding in a magazine (this casts a shadow & means the user has to crease the binding back – too much hassle) or on subway train ads (no connectivity to action the code!) and perhaps worst of all on TV ads – unless you’re offering something amazing with your code, I’m not going to pause the tv, get off the couch and then scan the code.
    The end result of the code doesn’t have to be something spectacular. I recently walked past a brasserie that had a QR code in the window, I scanned it and it automatically created a contact file on my phone with a link to a mobile friendly version of their menu. Simple yet effective. It also had an explanation in the window of how to scan the code – this is essential as many people think they are just ‘weird looking squares’.
    Recently over on The Social Penguin Blog we featured a video by US hip hop artist, Shin B that uses QR codes throughout – a brave move but the UX is flawed – people dont want to pause a music video. Unfortunately for Shin & the producer, this was the general consensus.
    I will be watching the evolution of QR codes with interest.

  8. I have concerns with how some marketers use QR codes as well. It drives me crazy when I see a business with a QR code on their website. I’m already online, just give me a link! Unfortunately, using QR codes improperly just leaves people with a bad impression of them.
    My business model for MusicVille is to have people scan QR codes from bands, venues or music shops at live locations (bringing an offline connection online). Music lovers then automatically join the mailing lists of their favorite places & bands and create their own “village” for all things related to music. So I need QR codes to have a good name!

  9. The QR Code is one that has baffled me for sure. I do everything possible not to see another advertisement. Why would I willing click on this piece of Spam?

  10. I love to see what other folks are up to, so I’m constantly scanning QR codes to see what they’ve come up with. Last week, at a movie theater, I was excited to see a Yahoo! QR code for free popcorn…right place, immediate reward….sounds great, right? But no. The codes were very small, placed on flexible cardboard that was standing up around the counters. With my iPhone, I was unable after 5 solid minutes of trying to focus and capture the QR code. Sometimes it’s the little details like making sure it’s large enough and printed on a flat, solid surface, that make the difference.

  11. The are many reasons why QR codes aren’t working to attract visitors.
    And I hate to say it, but not even an engaging campaign can save them at this point. It’s easier for many people to type in URLs. EASIER!
    They may have worked in parts of Asia, but North America is not the same tech or people. See my link for what I wrote on this topic a couple months ago.

  12. I dare say that Hardee’s/Carl Jr’s have a good promo going now with a mobile app that checks you in- I only lamented that it would have been the PERFECT reason for a QR code!

  13. QR codes are doing great in other countries, but for some reason we are last when it comes to catching on with the latest technology. Some magazines have been using them well, for instance sports illustrated had a QR code on the magazine that connected you a video of the model preparing for the shoot and the shoot itself. Yes, it is just a video, but a video that can grab the attention of many young males that read the magazine.
    Hopefully the idea of QR codes will catch on in the states, the only question is will the marketers creating them make it worth our time to scan them?

  14. I agree that in order to be successful, marketers need to ensure that the experience is impressive and performs. Companies want to use mobile technology to connect with customers and increase brand loyalty. Unfortunately, a bad experience can do the opposite. At Compuware we see this a lot where companies have made mistakes having agencies develop apps without thinking about the business purpose or the expected end user experience.
    On the B2B product marketing side of the house, we’ve been VERY successful utilizing QR codes to replace printed collateral. We put QR codes on business cards and leave those with prospects (from the sales rep to the tradeshow floor). It is always very well received since it is green and takes our prospects to a much richer experience than we can on paper!

  15. Clay – agree with your point about treasure hunts. The only time I have heard of a QR campaign that made me go wow was at a conference a couple years ago where I first saw Mitch speak. The guy was from CBC talking about a treasure hunt contest for viewers of The Border. They had clues hidden in the codes as well as sponsor partnership with Best Buy. You can read a bit more about it on Marketing Mag archives – http://www.marketingmag.ca/news/marketer-news/cbc-runs-qr-contest-for-12661
    At least this represented an experience for the consumer. Too bad we seem to have only regressed since then.

  16. I have a QR code reader but have yet to really use it. Most ads made it look like it would just direct me to their website which to me is not a great enough call to action when I’m out an about. So far the best QR codes I’ve seen is by Rogers Video when the have new releases coming up. The code will take you to the trailer of the movie.

  17. I have a QR code reader but have yet to really use it. Most ads made it look like it would just direct me to their website which to me is not a great enough call to action when I’m out an about. So far the best QR codes I’ve seen is by Rogers Video when the have new releases coming up. The code will take you to the trailer of the movie.

  18. QR codes are a new (ish) part of the tools available… As with any tool – those that use them best will get the results -and you are right – there are not many folk doing a good job with them.. The exciting thing about QR codes is that there IS so much possibility to engage with the customer…
    Surely a QR will be able to pick up (from user’s mobile) all the necessary information to make the user experience tailored to the individual (on top of ensuring that it is well done, interesting and relevant).
    Long way to go on this folks – look forward to seeing someone grab the baton…

  19. My first letdown in this arena came around the holidays when I was looking through a kids toy catalog. I really like the item and it had a QR code, so I picked up my phone and scanned it and then an ugly photo of the item was on my screen! There was nothing else and no way to buy. I was there and ready to buy the item and I couldn’t. It was a major fail from the agency. I would imaging the use of QR codes are at the end of the campaign cycle when they really need to be integrated into the whole campaign. Nice job Mitch!

  20. I love QR codes when they’re done right. QR codes are “hyperlinks for meat-space”.
    They are ideally suited to bridge real life and the virtual world. However, that bridge *must* go to a web world that has the mobile user in mind. I see too many QR codes with destinations that stink. They’re the corporate splash page or something similarly NOT geared for the mobile user.
    I come from the enterprise information management space and an very bullish on QR codes in general. I just wrote about 16 awesome uses for QR codes (link: http://bloomthink.com/2011/06/23/qr-codes-16-awesome-uses/)
    But behind it all is the absolute need to give the user something that is exciting and useful on the device s/he is using – the mobile phone and possibly a tablet.

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