The QR Code Conundrum

You know a marketing technology is suffering when they have to put it on the backsides of attractive female athletes to get people to pay attention. That’s the fate of QR codes, which have been the darling of mobile marketers and urban planners, but have proven far less interesting to consumers.

To get sports fans to scan the QR codes of their sponsors, the British Women’s Volleyball Team is putting them on the bikini bottoms worn by two of their players starting this month. According to the U.K.’s Daily Mail, when photographed on a smartphone, the QR code takes the user to the website of team sponsor Betfair, a betting firm. The thinking is that the, er, unique location of the code will encourage people to take pictures and test the code’s effectiveness. Ogling attractive posteriors is just a side benefit.

The technology could certainly use the sex appeal, as well as more ease-of-use, according to a pair of recent studies. The fact is not many people use QR codes or even know how to. ComScore reports that 14 million U.S. mobile users scanned a QR or bar code with their mobile phones in June. That’s about 6 percent of mobile users — and 4 percent of all Americans. The figures include bar codes, so the number for QR codes is even lower. Those scanning tended to fit the profile of the early-adopter crowd: skewing male, high-earning and often in the 25-34 age bracket.Although the codes increasingly appear on ads, in-store displays and products, two-thirds of high school and college students say they don’t know what the code is, according to a survey of 1,300 students by youth marketing firm Ypulse. Of those who do know about QR codes, only 17 percent had actually scanned them. Of the total group surveyed, almost 20 percent said they can’t or don’t want to figure out how to use the technology.

“We think of teens and college students as being so tech-savvy that they can figure out anything, but QR codes have them somewhat baffled,” said Melanie Shreffler, editor in chief of Ypulse.

It could be that the befuddlement is because most young people own feature phones that generally can’t handle apps for QR’s other 2-D bar codes. Research shows about one third of 12-17-year olds own smartphones.

But that leads to the findings of a July study by Chicago-based market research firm Lab42 of 500 adult social media users. Almost 60 percent were not familiar with QR codes. Of those who had scanned a code, 43 percent said they did it out of curiosity, and 46 percent said they did it to get an in-store discount. Perhaps most telling, only 13 percent of the respondents were able to use a QR code when asked by Lab42 to do so.

Those findings will come as little surprise to QR codes’ critics, who have long pointed out the clunkiness of the technology.

“QR codes are ugly and cumbersome, requiring you to download an app,” said Rei Inamoto, chief creative officer of AKQA. “Also, when you see a QR code, it’s often not clear what you’ll get from scanning it. Even if you know, it’s either not worth it or the offering is simply more content – which should be as easily accessible as just typing in a URL. So why make something less accessible and force people to do it in a difficult way?”

Despite his skepticism, Inamoto sees some value in making the scanning process more playful and less techie. He says his best example of clever QR code use is grocery chain Tesco Home Plus, which set up a virtual store in a Seoul, South Korea subway, with full-size posters of market shelves. Riders waiting for their train could scan the codes next to product photos to buy goods, which were then shipped to their homes. The transformation of a subway station into a grocery story captured online buzz, and the QR-code purchases more than doubled the chain’s online sales. The effort also captured a Media Grand Prix for agency Cheil Worldwide at the Cannes Lions this year.

“Technology is best when it’s transparent, and these codes are not,” according to Inamoto.