The Death Of The QR Code

When was the last time you scanned a QR code? Be honest. If it was in the last month, are you hooked? Yes, that was a rhetorical question because I can’t name one person I know that actively scans QR codes, and I’ll bet if you ask your network, neither can you.

To that end, I know that there is research that shows that an increasing number of people are “scanning a QR code,” but what I haven’t been able to find are statistics that show repeat usage. My guess is that there is a reason for that.

The History Of QR Codes

tombstoneTaking a step back, QR codes (short for “quick response” codes) were first created by the automotive industry in Japan back in 1994. Somewhere around two to three years ago in the United States, these strange looking squares became the talk of the town and started appearing everywhere; on t-shirts, outdoor ads, food labels — you name it.

The idea was simple — we now had an easy way to connect the offline world to the online world with a mere scan using our smart phones. With over 50% of people in the U.S. now possessing a smart phone, you would think this technology would be gaining in popularity. It’s not.

To be honest, I was a big proponent of QR codes starting somewhere in 2009/2010. I remember putting a huge QR code on the back of some custom t-shirts that my co-author, Mike Schneider, and I created to promote our book launch during SXSW Interactive back in 2011.

Over the last 12 months, however, I’ve had a change of heart; and, I can’t seem to find anyone who disagrees with me. In fact, the thing that prompted me to write this post was an older write up in AdAge by B.L. Ochman that Syracuse smartie, Chanda Picott, alerted me to the other day. The post by Ochman claimed that while QR codes may not be dead, they are certainly misused. It’s worth noting that she wrote this post in 2011.

The big question we should all be asking is, why hasn’t something as promising as the QR code gained more traction in the 10 years of its existence? Below are five reasons I see that prevented this fairly simple technology from living up to its promise.

5 Reasons For The Death Of QR Codes

  1. Apple and Android have yet to ship a phone with a QR reader pre-loaded. This is — and will be — a deal breaker in most cases, given the fact that these two mobile platforms accounted for north of 87.6% of all smart phones sold worldwide in 2012.
  2. In many cases, the mobile experience sitting behind the QR code is a disappointment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried scanning these codes only to be taken to non-mobile optimized sites, or worse, to a site where I scratched my head wondering what the connection to the original call-to-action was.
  3. Some QR codes end up in places with no wifi or connectivity on your phone (airplane, subway station). This is an obvious fail.
  4. Many consumer packaged goods companies feel that committing valuable space on their label/packaging to a standard UPC code and a QR code is overkill. And, in many cases, they focus on leveraging the UPC bar code to connect to an online experience (Weight Watchers’ mobile application lets you scan bar codes to give you nutritional information and provides number of “points” in a particular product).
  5. Even when a QR code is done right (link to mobile-optimized site, available connectivity, clear call-to-action), it’s hard to convince oneself that the minute it takes to pull out your phone, open up a scan-friendly app (assuming one had been downloaded), scan the QR code and then wait for the experience to load, is worth it.

Alternatives To QR Codes

So, as a marketer, what’s the alternative to QR codes? While no clear leader has emerged, here are a few technologies — some new, some existing — that can help provide a richer, or at least simpler, experience as we work to connect the offline world to the online:

  • SMS short codes — every mobile phone has functionality that allows users to text. Short codes are an easy way to punch in five numbers and receive back information (usually a link) that can connect one to an online experience. This isn’t a super sexy solution, but sometimes, the simplest answer is the best answer.
  • Augmented reality apps — these new technologies do require the download of a mobile app, but the payoff is immediate and allows for a much richer experience. Creating the experience requires more effort on the part of a company/marketer; but in the end, the result should be more engagement and adoption by the end user.
  • Mobile apps, like Weight Watchers, that allow mobile interaction with existing UPC bar codes — this gets back to the “sometimes simpler is better” principle, and nearly every package/label in the world has a UPC bar code on it. Using that as the catalyst for an online interaction versus creating a new code that takes up additional space at least lowers the barrier to entry on the part of the marketer.
  • Bluetooth and NFC (nearfield communication) — while these technologies are still in the nascent stages when it comes to communication between ads/products and mobile phones, they will become more prevalent over time and will require minimal effort on the part of the end user.

In summary, we humans are creatures of habit. We are always willing to try new technologies, but when the value of the outcomes is not commensurate with the level of effort required, we move on.

In the case of QR codes, there are simply too many barriers existing to make the experience worthwhile. And to that end, for every story I hear like that of friend Eric Miltsch’s, I hear a dozen more like that from Nathan Greenberg. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I don’t think I will.

If you have a success story or want to argue to the contrary, I look forward to discussing in the comments below.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Emerge Designs.