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To QR or not to QR


QR codes have seemingly been around since the dawn of time, and, like the horror movie monster that just won’t die, they’re back for another grab at the marketer’s attention.

This time around, QR seems to be making more progress, with the little blighters popping up everywhere from estate agent windows to gravestones.


 I’ve been firmly in the NO camp since the last time there was a QR bonanza in the marketing press around three years ago, on the grounds that, along with much else in the innovation space, QR has until now failed the “Is Anyone Really Going To Do That” test.

Seriously: in order to find out more about a spot cream or fizzy drink, you have to:

a) get out your phone.

b) find your QR scanner, or if not, go to your app store and download one.

c) hold it still over the ad (or in the laughable Waitrose TV example, wait like a cat then pounce!).

d) click the URL and browse over your mobile connection for whatever it is you wanted in the first place.

My idea of mobile interaction is to make life easier and simpler, so this makes it quite ironic that QR stands for Quick Response.

However, I was always hopeful that QR would take off as the technology is very robust and proven, and I’ve always felt that should manufacturers build scanning technology direct into their camera and find some way to deal with the assumed power consumption that should require, then consumers would get on board.

Also there are any number of nice executions ranging from hero outdoor ones like this CK code in the US (leading inevitably to a mobile video clip of some young people in their scanties), through to these lovely ideas for the codes themselves (try them - they work!).

There’s not too much evidence of great case studies with results for QR codes (except this), and right now we in the marketing fraternity are merrily QR-ing away regardless, which is very much the opposite of how mobile generally works.

Now I have no problem with egg-before chicken, and am broadly in favour of this – QR codes are free to create and set up, so the worst that can happen is a bit of test-and-learn.

However, what I really wanted to discuss is just a little bit of best practice, or common sense as it’s sometimes known. If you’re going to take a punt on a new response technique, you should probably at least get the basics right, and, as in all things, think about the user journey along the way.

Here are a couple of examples of where this has not been done quite right.

MI5’s recent recruitment campaign made much of dedicating entire outdoor spaces to QR. This looks good until you make the effort to click through the code, and find yourself on an unnavigable web page, not optimised for mobile.

Let’s hope that the people supposedly in charge of our national security are doing a bit better in their day job than in hiring ad agencies who let this kind of thing through…

Another example, bad for a couple of different reasons, is this one from VK.

While MI5 at least had the forethought to include some tracking in the QR URL, this code directs the user straight to the campaign Facebook page.

With no way of tracking where these users have come from, the QR is unmeasurable and unaccountable – worst – the brand has learnt nothing from the experience of doing this.

Then of course if the user is not already logged in, as most users aren’t because smartphone users mostly use their native app for Facebook, you have to log in. This takes you straight to your feed rather than to VK and the user is lost unless they then search again to find the page.

So, there are plenty of pitfalls and it’s a shame to see these campaigns going out without some basic steps being taken.

I welcome discussion of all of this, but here would be my basic A-B-C for getting this right:

Consider the user experience

Mock up the experience before it goes live. Try it yourself, get other people to try it on different phones. Would Anyone Really Do This? Example of what to avoid here!

Optimise sites or landing pages

Use short URLs so that QR codes are as simple and machine-readable as possible, bearing in mind the image may well be munged through newspaper reproduction.

Make sure tracking is included in your URL, so you can demonstrate clearly how much response your QR has gained

Don’t give up! It’s still early days for QR, so perseverance may well pay off.

Of course, while it’s easy to get bogged down in one solution, in this case QR, what we are really trying to do is to make sure that users have an easy way to respond to our ATL advertising.

And here there’s no doubt that the elephant in the room is mobile search. Searching from phones is now for many users the default way to get more information once engaged by an ad, and getting that right is at the moment probably far more important than QR, SMS shortcodes, or anything else in this area right now.


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