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QR Codes: Misunderstood? Or Are We Missing the Point?

By Allison King

Until recently, I didn’t have a smartphone, so I never paid much attention to QR codes since I wasn’t able to scan them anyway. But now I’ve finally joined the ranks of 72.5 million (and growing) smartphone owners in the U.S. and I downloaded a free QR code scanner from the App store so I could try it out.

Thing is, I find that I’m not inclined to scan a QR code just because it’s there. Apparently I’m not alone. Statistics show that most Americans ignore QR codes. During the month of June 2011, 14 million Americans scanned QR codes – that’s just 6.2 percent of the total mobile audience (comScore study).

So are QR codes just a fad that is soon to die? Or can they be an effective part of a marketing strategy? I went to DMAW‘s October luncheon to find out what John Lil, consultant with Quad/Graphics, had to say.

In his presentation, “QR Codes: Unlocking the Power of Print.” Lil showed examples of QR codes being used as a strategy to collect e-mail addresses, to send users to streaming videos of product demos, to get users to enter a contest, get coupons, or join a loyalty program. QR codes can be printed in a book to send readers to a video clip, an interactive map, or a discussion forum.

Apparently there are about as many uses of QR codes as your imagination can come up with.

“Most are static QR codes,” says Lil. “Everyone who scans it has the same experience. In marketing, that’s not where we want to end up.”

Lil explained how you can take it to a whole new level with personalized QR codes. This has to be a direct marketer’s dream. Whether it’s a page in a magazine or a direct mail piece, your QR code can be personalized with information your database knows about the recipient. And unlike just having a URL on your printed piece, you can track if the individual scanned your QR code, when, where, and with what device. And with the personalization, you can create a personalized offer for the recipient.

“It’s a technique to get your printed page more interactive,” says Lil, “and the outcome of that is really up to you.”

The challenge, says Lil, is making QR code campaigns effective. In one study, only one third of U.S. consumers who have scanned a QR code say that it was worth the time spent.

To help ensure your campaign is effective, and your QR code is worth scanning, here are some tips gleaned from the presentation:

  1. Have a mobile strategy in place first. Your organization should have in place a mobile strategy for content, and for giving customers what they want and need. Your website, and any page you send a user to with your QR code, has to be mobile friendly.
  2. Know your audience. Where will they be when they scan your QR code? Do they need instructions on what the QR code is and how to scan it?  Nearly 30 percent of consumers don’t know what a QR code is.
  3. Give them something of value. The small percentage of people willing to scan a QR code may be a reflection of not seeing the value of doing so up front. Promise something useful and relevant – not just another advertisement. Don’t use a QR code if you’re just sending someone to your website’s home page.
  4.  Integrate QR codes with other media. Your QR code can send people a streaming video or connect them to your Facebook page.
  5.  Make sure your QR code works. Use a shortened URL so your QR code is less dense, which will increase the chances of it being readable, especially on older smartphones. Also the bigger the QR code, the better. Don’t go below the size of a postage stamp. And test, test, test.
  6. Brand your QR code. I’ll admit they are pretty ugly. But since about 70% of the code has to be readable, that gives you about 30% to add some personality to the code. They can actually be creative and attention-grabbing.

There are arguments on either side as to whether QR codes are failing. But I think that QR codes are just another tool that marketers can use to deliver value to their audience. We have to use them effectively, which means we have to adapt to an increasingly mobile world.


Allison King is marketing director at TMG Custom Media and a prospective DMAW member. She has been a B2B direct marketer for nearly 20 years. Follow her on Twitter