The Right Way To Use QR Codes

QR codes are dead. Right? Marketers gave it a good go, but now it's time to move on.

Not so fast. It certainly appears the vast majority of QR code campaigns to date have been unsuccessful. But hindsight is 20/20. If you analyze those rollouts, you will find factors that in retrospect obviously doomed the campaign - often before it even began. And there have been some truly successful and well done campaigns, demonstrating the potential for bottom-line business ROI:

  • Heinz put QR codes on restaurant ketchup bottles in the US. Over one million Americans scanned the code so far.
  • L'Oreal used QR codes in taxicabs for a five day campaign, and reported an overall conversion rate of 7% - tremendously successful for an in-taxi ad, by any measure.
  • South Korean retailer Esmart used a novel mid-day approach to displaying QR codes, that directly increased sales 25% during the lunch hour.

(Read more about these and other successful QR code campaigns.)

Let's look at the truly winning way to use QR codes for your mobile marketing, so that your business can tell its own success story.

Campaign-Killing Mistakes Made With QR Codes

Failing to give the consumer an irresistible reason to scan the code. Imagine posting a flyer that says: "MARKETING ENGAGEMENT STUDY: Scan this QR code to get a $20 bill mailed to you, absolutely free. Only available to the first 100 who respond." What do you think the scan rate of that would be? Massive, right? People who have never scanned a QR code in their life would be lining up to get close enough to scan it. In fact, if you found a way to measure it, you'd very likely find that many would go to the trouble of finding and installing a QR code app just to scan your code.

If you place a QR code without clearly communicating a benefit to scanning it, no one will. "Curiosity" is no longer a compelling motivation, if it ever was, for your prospect to take their phone out; fire up the QR code app (or install it first); and point their camera. You have to make them want to do it... a compelling call to action.

When considering a QR code for your campaign, think about your prospect, and what you can offer them that will get them just as excited as a free $20 bill. If you do just this one thing, your campaign will have the potential to be more successful than 90% of what's out there. Bonus: this exercise will force you to more deeply understand what truly motivates your prospect.

Choosing unworkable contexts. A couple of years ago, Swiss watchmaker Tissot sponsored American racer Danica Patrick. Part of this involved placing a QR code on the hood of her car. As it turns out, this approach has problems. Bottom line: it was impossible for anyone to actually scan the code!

  • Spectators at the event were almost never close enough to the car itself.
  • And even if they were, it was not staying still long enough for them to scan it. After all, it's a race car!
  • TV viewers were apparently never shown a good enough close-up of the QR code that it would even be possible to scan it. In other words, even if you had a recording of the race, and paused it at the moment where the code was most visible, your phone would not be able to read it because of the poor angle.

Another example: Fedex was widely mocked for placing QR codes on the sides of its trucks. It would actually be interesting to see if there were scans in dense urban situations, where Fedex vehicles are often temporarily parked in places where large numbers of people walk by. But in many markets, the majority of people who see it will be on the road. That is going to limit engagement at best, and be a legal hazard for Fedex at worst.

For QR codes to be scannable, the prospect must be able to hold their phone close. As a rule of thumb, take the width of the QR code graphic, and multiply it by two; that's the ideal distance. This puts a constraint on the types of media in which they can be utilized; a highway billboard, for example, is a very poor place for a QR code. Not only will people be driving quickly past it. Even if someone is stuck in traffic, a graphic that fills the billboard will be too small to be scannable at that distance.

The question you want to ask yourself: In this campaign, now can the QR code be presented so that it is not only possible to scan, but easy as well? Any environmental barriers will slash your engagement rate.

Failing to consider the network quality. If your QR code is in a glossy magazine, where will people be seeing it? Either in their home, at the office, or perhaps a library or waiting lobby.

In each of these cases, they are likely to have a network connection available: either through their data plan, or even wifi for their phone. This is a good environment for QR codes: when they scan the code, the target (e.g., a mobile landing page) will likely be able to load quickly.

Now, consider a different situation: inside of a subway car, which will have posters and other ads inside as the train locomotes underground. In some ways, this is an ideal context for mobile marketing; your audience is captive and bored, with not much to do other than read your sales copy in front of them.

But in many municipalities, QR codes would be a poor choice, because network quality is poor. Underground and inside a fast-moving metal box, very often either cellular signals cannot penetrate, or will do so with very tiny bandwith (meaning the page takes many minutes to load and the prospect gives up waiting). So when your prospect tries to scan the QR code, they will simply get a timeout error.

A much better choice in this situation would be an SMS autoresponder. When someone sends the text to opt-in, compelled by the clear value your call-to-action promises them (right? Remember, free $20 bill), most phones know how to handle spotty network connections gracefully. If the text cannot be sent, it will be automatically queued and sent later, when she or he emerges from the underground.

At that point, the transaction will complete and your mobile marketing relationship with this individual can proceed. QR code apps do not have this kind of network-outage resilience, for the most part.

(It's technically possible to design a QR scanner that could retry in the background, and in fact some do. But to be effective, it must also hook it into the phone's notification system, just like it naturally does with SMS messages. I don't know of any QR apps that go to that trouble, and even if it exists, you certainly can't count on your prospect using that particular app.)

Not measuring and segmenting. QR codes give you a fantastic advantage: you can completely measure responses, differentiating between different key segments and indicators.

If you are publishing two different magazine ads, for example, you had better use two different QR codes. Both can have the same URL destination, but they should at least have a different tracking code (a GET parameter, in techie speak) so that you can measure which one was scanned more often. Any web developer can help you set this up; it's not hard.

Or: Your copywriter has crafted two compelling calls to action... two different reasons for why your prospect should scan the QR code. Which is more effective? Which generates more scans per advertising dollar invested? Which produces a higher quality lead, as measured by initial purchase size, or even lifetime business value of the customer? Which will attract the customer who refers more of their friends over time? Answering these questions all starts with measurement - making two different QR codes for these two ads, with two different tracking codes.

But too often, people do not take advantage of this. They will use the same QR code, unsegmented or even untracked, across a wide range of media and situations, and wonder why the average response is so low. It could be that a particular ad is giving a fantastic response - its QR code dramatically increasing the ROI of that ad - but because they failed to track it, they will never know.

Failing to fully test the final rendered QR code. Imagine your prospect delightfully seduced by your ad, taking out their phone, and scanning your QR code... then nothing happens. Why? Because there was some graphical flaw that prevents it from working on their phone.

This can happen for many reasons: the code is printed too small or blurry to be readable; some flaw in the QR code creator creates an image that works on some phones, but not all; or perhaps a mistake was made and the QR code takes them to the wrong page. The only way to verify nothing unexpected has happened is to test the QR code in the final (or near-final) form.

Here's a very important tip: Be sure you test it out on a range of phones. Take the final proof around to a variety of your coworkers - you want to test it out on an iPhone or two; at least two and preferably three different Android devices; a Blackberry device; and a Windows Phone. If it works well on all of these, you can be confident it will work on any of the hundreds of different devices your prospect might be using.

Could something replace QR codes?

I've seen some frankly hyperbolic articles claiming that qr codes will be supplanted by a mix of proprietary technologies aiming to improve on the user experience. A good example of these is Digimarc's digital watermarks, which Costco recently moved to in favor of QR codes in its monthly magazine.

While these have their place, and can be the best choice in certain situations, you need to use some discernment and recognize the advantages QR codes bring to the table:

  • While all these options require a custom app, many phones have a QR app installed already. Most Android phones, for example, include Google Goggles (which can read QR codes very well) pre-installed.
  • In the short term, your conversion rate with the alternatives will be limited not just by the app installation barrier, but by familiarity. Many consumers at least know what a QR code is at this point.
  • These alternatives are proprietary, you may be limited by the analytics and functionality provided by the vendor. This CAN be an advantage in that what they provide is available "out of the box", but if you need to track or enable some action outside of their menu, you are stuck unless you have a very large budget to wave at them.
  • QR codes are an open format. You need not pay any licensing fees, nor have to sign an NDA to get important technical information. And the technology is simple enough that commodity IT talent can construct custom solutions that better serve your needs.
  • The differential cost of adding a QR code to a campaign is often very low. Anyone with a printer they bought at Costco can print a flyer with QR codes. Some of these alternatives, however, can be much more trouble to set up.

The advantages of any of these solutions may well outweigh those of QR codes for your situation. If so, by all means use them. But use your head rather than blindly following hype.

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