The QR Code Racket

QR codes are the technology marketers’ love and consumers’ hate. They frequently show up in print, out-of-home, online, TV, and even in-game ads. The problem: Most people have no idea how or why they should use them.

That hasn’t stopped advertisers, who make any number of excuses for the obvious shortcomings QR codes have. Awareness just needs to improve, QR code supporters say. The now-clunky interface will get better, they add. Once the content behind the code is compelling, just you wait. All these promises are starting to sound like pipe dreams of techno-fetishists.

“They’re appealing from a marketer’s point of view because they look hip and cool and they’re the new thing. From a value standpoint, though, they’re essentially just URLs. There’s a disconnect between what marketers want to see and what’s really there,” said David Wachs, president of mobile marketing technology firm Cellit.

Wachs predicts use of the codes will begin to fade as marketers realize it’s not worth dedicating time or ad real estate to them for the level of response they generate. Most advertisers would be better off using simple URLs, he suggested, which take up less space and are at least understood by most consumers.

Even agency execs — among whom the technology was once the talk of the town – are beginning to rethink their approaches to it, but they  maintain there can be value behind the codes if implemented correctly. 360i is currently working on guidelines designed to educate its clients on good and bad uses, for example.

“They’re usually not well thought out, and that’s the biggest knock on them. If they were being run better, we wouldn’t need as much of a debate. … They’re being used in a slap-dash manner,” said the agency’s director of emerging platforms, David Berkowitz.

In spite of that, agencies maintain that the codes can prove successful for certain brands and marketers, provided they think through what value is being provided to the consumer. Product packaging, for example, provides the perfect opportunity to present consumers with product demos, recipes, and coupons.

“They’re just so easy to create, and that’s making the problem worse,” Berkowitz said, explaining why the codes are now pasted all over out-of-home and print ads. “Marketers need to invest more in the strategy behind them,” he added, highlighting the continued use of codes in mediums they simply aren’t suited to, such as TV spots, which he described as “mind-bogglingly awful.”

Wachs, meanwhile, argued that SMS-based response mechanisms do a better job of providing a similar functionality and also enable the capture of users’ cellphone numbers for remarketing and CRM purposes. But your average SMS campaign isn’t going to excite a creative dreaming of Cannes Lions. Berkowitz dubs fuddy-duddy SMS as “probably the most underutilized marketing channel there is,” but cited the costs of implementing such a campaign.

The biggest problem QR codes face is consumer indifference, even confusion. Most smartphones don’t carry code scanners preinstalled, and most users are disinclined to download one just to scan a code they’ve seen on an ad. Even those that do will probably only scan one or two codes before the novelty wears off, so stats from measurement companies such as ComScore suggesting millions of consumers are scanning away on a regular basis should be taken with a grain of salt.

And, yes, the numbers will inevitably increase particularly as carriers and OS developers move towards bundling the software with handsets. Yet Berkowitz and Wachs agreed that adoption could continue to lag in spite of that trend. In fact, it might never happen on a grand scale.

“It might get easier to scan these codes, but, really, what’s the benefit?” Wachs said, adding, “The gimmick factor is soon going to dissipate.” Berkowitz agreed, stating, “It has to get really, really easy for this to become more of a mainstream technology.”

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