Some Thoughts On QR Codes

I recently returned from a 10-day trip to Stockholm, Sweden. While I was there, I came across three interesting ads that all incorporated scannable codes.

I spotted the first one while waiting for the bus (click to enlarge). 764w, 968w" sizes="(max-width: 224px) 100vw, 224px" />

This is the Swedish Pensions Agency advertising a new service that lets people forecast their pensions. Readers can download the app by scanning the QR code in the bottom right. There’s only a hint to what the code does: “Get The Pensions Prognosis Application!”). It seems like it would be more straightforward to download the app by simply searching for it.

I found the second ad in an issue of Swedish Metro. 764w, 968w" sizes="(max-width: 224px) 100vw, 224px" />

This is Bonnier’s Art Gallery advertising a new fall exhibition. The ad states that the exhibition isn’t for everyone and decidedly not for you, but if you scan the QR code you’ll get a free admission ticket that you can give to someone better suited. This is a bit quirky and very opinionated, which feels like a good context for QR codes. The payoff is good – sure, you’re gonna have to put in a little bit of effort scanning the code, but you’ll get free admission to an art exhibition!

The third one is also a Metro find. 1024w, 1296w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /> is an online bookstore and in this case, they’re trying to reach students stocking up on literature for the fall term. The headline reads “This ad is really a bookstore for students”. The ad further explains that if you download the app, you’ll be able to buy books by scanning the barcodes in the ad. On first thought, it seems like a really compelling idea – a print ad that actually is a store – but I wonder how many people will actually download the app.

A majority of marketing executions involving QR codes seem to fail to

  1. explain to users what the codes are and how to use them. Keep in mind that only a very small minority of users actually use QR codes, despite the fact that the technology has been around in the US on a noticeable scale, and seemingly in the public’s eye, since 2008.
  2. provide users with enough motivation to go through with the action of scanning the code in order to get to the prize on the other side.

(If you’re interested, Aaron Dignan’s book Game Frame digs deeper into these two as symptoms of user inhibition and disengagement within systems – well worth the read.)

Perhaps this is a bit of a stretch, but Malcolm Gladwell’s article “The Pitchman” comes to mind. It tells the story of Ron Popeil who re-invented the product pitch and built a multi-million dollar empire selling kitchen gadgets. Gladwell argues that in order to disrupt someone’s behavior, you have to explain the use cases of your product over and over again:

[ The Chop-O-Matic] represented a different way of dicing onions and chopping liver: it required consumers to rethink the way they went about their business in the kitchen. Like most great innovations, it was disruptive. And how do you persuade people to disrupt their lives? Not merely by ingratiation or sincerity, and not by being famous or beautiful. You have to explain the invention to customers– not once or twice but three or four times, with a different twist each time. You have to show them exactly how it works and why it works, and make them follow your hands as you chop liver with it, and then tell them precisely how it fits into their routine, and, finally, sell them on the paradoxical fact that, revolutionary as the gadget is, it’s not at all hard to use.

Brands that use QR codes are asking their consumers to rethink the way they interact with the brand. They’re asking people to find and install an app to read the codes with, and then to scan the code in order to access some information. This may sound like little effort, but it’s enough to dissuade people from even bothering.

Which brands, if any, have ever pitched the QR code to their audience?

It’s easy to see why QR codes are attractive to marketers:

  1. There’s no licensing cost.
  2. The technology is standardized and open-source.
  3. There’s no additional cost for integration – just add the code to your campaign material.
  4. QR codes have been popular in Asia for some time. Surely they could become popular in the US and Europe too?
  5. The consumer reach is, in theory, pretty good. QR codes aren’t quite phone agnostic quite yet, but most smartphones support free 3rd party readers. Google’s Android OS and RIM’s Blackberry both support QR codes through native readers. Apple’s iOS on the other hand does not include a QR code reader (but there’s plenty of 3rd party apps available). The Windows 7 phone will have native support through its bing search app.
  6. Lastly, but most importantly: QR codes provide brands with an additional measurement channel.

Through the use of QR codes, marketers get access to new exciting metrics like the click-through rate for real-world items coupled with timestamps as well as geographical and demographical data. Swedish startup Mopper illustrate this very clearly in their online sales pitch – measurement is a huge selling point.

The Mopper team doesn’t stop at just measurement; they make the natural progression to QR code-enabled sales. Apart from providing a QR code reader, the app also ties together QR codes with commerce, creating an additional sales channel. This I actually like a lot, provided it’s the right situation. Just like in one of the Mopper videos, I’d love to be able to buy show tickets directly from a poster rather than having to remember to do it when I get home or trying to navigate Ticketmaster’s frustrating website on my phone. [Sidenote: Mopper has cleverly rotated the QR code, added their logo to its top right corner and named the result ‘mopper tag‘. Rings nicer than ‘QR code’, doesn’t it?]

A concluding thought. If you’re a brand manager, planner or marketer and you’re considering incorporating QR codes into your next campaign, ask yourself this: can you afford to onboard your audience in the usage of QR codes while keeping them motivated through the process?