QR codes
QR codes

We are hearing more and more about QR codes, BeeTags, and other 2-D codes. So I thought I would return to the subject and overlay my perspective from within a major newspaper group.

Are they as good as some would say? Are they the panacea to all our mobile interactive requirements? Read on to learn more.

QR codes are two-dimensional barcodes that are easily scanned using any modern mobile phone. This code will then be converted into content — maybe a piece of interactive text and/or link. QR (or Quick Response) means just that: they can be read quickly by the mobile device.

They came to us from Japan and the Far East, where they are today extremely popular on most media. You may well have seen QR codes starting to appear in a print newspaper advertisement, on a billboard, a Web page ... or even on someone’s t-shirt. Once the code has been read by your mobile phone, it may give you details about that business (allowing users to search for nearby locations), or details about the person wearing the t-shirt; show you a URL, which you can click to see a trailer for a movie; or it may give you a coupon which you can use in a local outlet.

The reason why they are more useful than a standard barcode is that they can store and digitally present much more data, including URL links, geo-coordinates, and text.

The other key feature of QR codes is that instead of requiring a chunky hand-held scanner, they can be read by many modern mobile phones. It takes literally one minute for someone with an iPhone or Android phone to find and install a QR code reader in the App Store, which is not ideal (a step too far maybe?) but in theory, at least, an easy and simple process.

You can easily generate a QR code yourself (“Google it” and see the myriad of sites explaining how to) or you can use the IT department to generate codes for you if you have a smart developer on hand. Or of course, your mobile developing agency will be happy to oblige.

Your business, no matter how small or large, could use QR codes in a number of ways. You might generate one next to every product on your Web site, containing all the product details, the number to call, and the URL link to the page so your readers can show their friends on their mobile phone. You could add one to your business card containing your contact details.

You could add them to any print advertising, flyers, posters, invitations or TV ads containing product details, contact or offer details, news of events, competitions or coupons, Twitter or Facebook IDs, links to YouTube videos, and so on.

So, that’s the theory. What’s the practice? I, for one, have been skeptical so far. I keep snapping the codes I find, ever hopeful that a great experience will  happen.

QR codes have by many been regarded so far as either as a clunky technology that requires too much of the consumer (to download the scanner, chiefly) and tends to deliver too little; or as a mode of interaction destined for the scrap heap when near-field communication streamlines interaction.

But for now at least, there seem to be a few simple rules to get the most out of the technology.

Don’t create a code and just point to the home page of a standard Web site. There is no worse experience than requiring a user to navigate an unwieldy, data-dense site that isn’t even optimised for touch or smaller screens. Think it through; consider the user experience. (I recently saw a U.K. national press ad that had a QR code which only gave you the same ad again once snapped. What’s the point?)

I have also seen so many dead links that QR codes have pointed me to, though the campaigns were supposed to be live when I tried them. Again, think it through.

Some marketers are trying to answer the “What is the value?” question directly. In the United States recently, a print campaign from the department store Macy’s was designed to push people into stores. Activating the code from the newspaper ad would tell the user about a special three-hour window on a certain day, in which special deals would be available to them in-store. When users got to the store they already knew how to use a QR code of course, so they could identify and look for them to activate the deal.

However, the extra step of downloading an app to take a picture ... to send to a brand ... to get some content in return... is not as onerous as you might think in practice. It’s just that in the perception stakes, it looks like it is.

What’s needed is for handset manufacturers to have the scanners built-in already at purchase and a chunk of education and marketing on what to do with it. This is something which seems lacking to me in the history of mobile technologies. You can’t just assume people will want or use a feature or service; you need to show them how to use it.

There are some good examples though. QR codes were used in newspaper ads promoting media personality and celebrity chef Martha Stewart and her branded merchandise. They headlined the QR code with “Scan the code for More Martha,” which leverages Stewart’s personality and connection with the shopper most likely to focus on this page, clearly and simply declaring some value to the process. The content you received (a video from Martha) was helpful, and there was a menu of real options for the user (such as click to call) and a link to a rich, mobile-optimised purchasing site.

Of course, getting you there did require print instructions for downloading the app. Not ideal. All this takes space and time that could be focused on other tasks in the ad space. (But at least the user experience was OK and gave you a good value proposition.)

Poor QR experiences without on-page instructions can see response rates as low as 0.5%, while codes that are well positioned and with good end user experiences clearly signposted by the print creative can see up to 15%. And generally, the response rates are climbing as more people get familiar with the codes.

QR codes are here. But as consumers experience good and bad ones, the real question is will they learn that this part of the mobile marketing jigsaw is rewarding the user for making the effort?

As ever, for newsmedia companies, there is no panacea. We must experiment and find what is ideal for ourselves and our advertisers. But QR codes may well provide us with a new revenue stream we can package up and offer advertisers as part of a cross-platform offering. But remember at all times the user experience!

P.S. I created the QR code above at Qurify in 30 seconds. Scan it and try it for yourself!