Why Would Anyone Scan Your QR Code?

Marketers won’t shut up about QR codes anytime soon, so get used to hearing about them.

When Google told the world it was abandoning QR codes in Google Places in favor of near-field communication, writers such as this guy at Business Insider wrote, “If you haven’t [scanned a QR code before now], you probably never will.”

Here’s why he’s wrong: For starters, QR codes and NFC are not mutually exclusive. Marketers can, and at some point probably should, find great ways to use both. It’s not like Facebook and Twitter, for example, which consumers often choose between because they only have the capacity, the patience or the desire to maintain one of these platforms that are often perceived as “the same.”

Second, QR codes are free, quick and easy to create and implement, and a consumer only needs a free app on a phone to put them to use. NFC requires a hardware chip for the sharer of data and a chip reader for the consumer. Marketers have an academic term for that: pain in the ass.

Yes, Google is making a big push to try NFC technology, but it’s still only in the experimental phase — with Google handing out NFC-enabled signage to businesses in Portland, Ore. That doesn’t sound like a “you probably never will” QR code killer to me.

We’ve been talking a lot about QR Codes in our office, both as a technological curiosity and as a tool we can put to use for clients in the right situations. We have clients asking about them. We’ve had our George Fiddler write a nice post about the basics of creating and using QR codes. It’s clear to us that while there’s no shortage of people talking about how to use QR codes, very few people seem to be talking about how to use them meaningfully. Before you embark on an QR code-using expedition, think critically about why and how you’d use them.

Some situations in which QR codes don’t make sense (unless I’m missing something; seriously, I’d love to know):

  • As a not-so-short “shortcut”: Keep in mind QR codes’ core function: saving keystrokes on a smartphone’s thumb-oriented keyboard. For example, someone viewing an ad in an airport terminal could probably thumb-type “delta.com” faster than she could fire up the QR code scanning app and make it work it’s magic — rendering the QR code all but worthless.
  • As a Twitter profile picture: This is a common use, but remember that anyone viewing a Twitter profile pic is probably sitting in front of a computer (meaning they could more easily click a link in your Twitter bio than scan a code) or actually holding the mobile device with which they’d otherwise scan a QR code.
  • On the outside of a taxi cab or bus: Unless you’re content with people only being able to scan your QR code in heavy traffic or at stop lights, think of something else.

Some examples of places where QR codes can be used effectively:

  • As a shortcut to a special Web page or other content: Make sure the content is compelling, and use the QR code to save those tedious thumb strokes. Not so much when you’re driving people from a print ad to “homepage.com” but more like “homepage.com/2011/specialpromo/giveaway.htm”.
  • Out-of-home advertising or retail display signage: Imagine an ad for a movie at a bus stop with a QR code pointing to the film trailer. Great way to spend those otherwise boring bus-wait minutes. Or imagine a sign above a grocery store display of your favorite soft drink with a QR code that reminds you to sign up for their reward program before you make the purchase. Thanks for idea, soft drink maker!
  • Other amazingly cool stuff that your customers would actually appreciate and be impressed by: Like this


  • http://twitter.com/craigsanatomy Craig Key

    Great writeup Mike! I think the fact that QR is free to use is going to cement it’s place for a while. As awesome as NFC will be (once it’s adopted en mass), the fact that it costs anything will be a barrier to a lot of CPG brands who are producing millions of units, and would rather print a QR code for free than embed a NFC chip for a few cents per package. 

    What would be nice is the smartphone makers would make reading QR codes a native part of the camera app. That way you don’t have to explain to your mom that she eneds to search for an app, then download it, then open it, then point it at the code…you can simply say “take a picture of that square thingy.”

    Until that happens…It seems like the best practice is to include a little text near the code saying “Don’t have a reader? Visit xyz.com on your smartphone to download our free app.”

    • http://www.michaelkeliher.com mjkeliher

      “What would be nice is the smartphone makers would make reading QR codes a native part of the camera app.”
      Yes. Let’s have that.