It’s do-or-die time for QR codes

QR codes have quietly fizzled from a promising cutting-edge tool for mobile marketing into a little-used digital novelty. Only five percent of Americans scanned a code between May and July of 2011, according to Forrester Research, leading Bloomberg Businesweek to claim that we’re suffering from QR code fatigue. Business 2 Community this week offers six reasons QR codes are doomed to fail, while SFGate.com says they’ve become a joke. But the lack of traction has little to do with consumer behavior or technological shortcomings – it’s primarily due to failures on the marketing end. The big question is, can marketers figure out how to leverage QR codes before NFC or another technology replaces them.
Once an obscure technology used by the earliest adopters, QR codes are now everywhere: I’ve seen them on everything from real estate fliers to barbecue grills to the back of a city bus. Indeed, Competitrack reports that the percentage of print ads including QR codes increased six-fold during 2011. And that ubiquity has raised consumer awareness as evidenced by recent data from Chadwick Martin Bailey that indicates more than 80 percent of U.S. internet users can identify a QR code when they’re shown one.
That same study Chadwick Martin Bailey study illustrates why consumer usage of QR is so lackluster: The most popular reason given for scanning a code was curiosity about what would happen (cited by 46 percent of those who scanned); only 18 percent said they scanned to take advantage of a discount or a free gift. So while the novelty factor is still prompting users to check out QR codes, few consumers actually expect to get something in return.
That’s a big problem because the novelty of QR codes is sure to wear thin soon – if it isn’t doing so already. Marketers have dropped the ball on several fronts: Not only have they failed to cultivate consumer adoption of QR codes by offering something of real value – a coupon, say, or some other freebie – they often deploy QR campaigns that are more trouble for consumers than they’re worth. They post QR ads in subway stops where connectivity is impossible, or on highway billboards where drivers simply can’t scan them. And they often direct users to web sites that are difficult to view on a handset, for instance, or provide content that isn’t targeted to mobile users.
That’s a shame because when consumers scan a QR code they’re voluntarily engaging with whatever they’re interested in. They’re tech-savvy people who take the time to launch an app and scan the codes because they want something: More information, a cool video clip, a two-for-one offer or an invitation to sign up for a loyalty program. They’re inviting businesses and other organizations to present their case, to participate in a dialogue, to tell them why they should buy or get involved. And they’re doing it on their smartphones, which (as you’ve heard before) is the most personal device we carry.
Meanwhile, the window is closing for QR codes as a marketing tool. NFC-enabled handsets are beginning to come to market in a very big way. As we’ve written before, NFC holds tremendous promise as a marketing tool because of its simplicity: Rather than launching an app and scanning a code, consumers will soon be able to simply tap their phones against a sticker, poster or other piece of marketing material to receive the information they’re looking for. QR codes still have a chance to become an effective tool for companies and non-profits looking to engage users via their smartphones, but those organizations will have to find more effective ways of using those codes to engage mobile users. And if they don’t do it soon, QR codes will become an afterthought in the fast-moving world of mobile marketing.

Question of the week

Can QR codes finally find an audience among mainstream smartphone users?