QR codes in marketing – why?

QR codes in marketing – why?

QR codes – the square matrix barcodes – seem to be everywhere nowadays. From lampposts to the end frames of some TV adverts there seems no escaping them.
If you’ve not used one, the way it works is you take a photograph of the QR code using a smartphone and you’re then redirected to the web address behind the QR code – like a simple shortcut or call to action.
For quite a while now I’ve been thinking through the application of QR codes in marketing. While I can see the value in many of their uses, I’m still, to be brutally honest, struggling to see the point in many marketing applications of QR codes.
To me use of QR codes in most marketing scenarios feels a bit like a shiny new solution that looks cool, but for which marketers aren’t really thinking through the problem that the use of the code is trying to solve.
While there’s some evidence on current usage, such as recent research by mobile marketing agency Joule and lifestyle and environments agency Kinetic Worldwide, I’m not sure it shows much beyond trialling among the traditional early adopter audience:

  • 20% of 18-24 year olds use QR codes
  • 39% think they know how to use one
  • 37% think they could be useful • Largest use is in a media context
  • Almost 40% of consumers are now familiar with the interactive matrix barcodes and across all age groups 12% of consumers have successfully scanned a QR code with their mobile phone camera and accessed the information it contained. However, this figure increases to 20% amongst 18-24 year olds and 15% for 25-34 year olds.
  • On average, men were more likely to have used a QR code (15%) than women (12%) and, of people who have used them, most have done so with codes on advertising and on products (both 41%). The study found that 19% of users had put to use QR codes on a poster and 9% on a press advertisement but that ‘media’ was the top use for this technology.
  • Although QR codes are achieving relatively high usage rates amongst 18-24 year olds, overall 43% of consumers say they have never seen one and just 1% of those aged 55-64 had used one successfully

So on the surface it’s easy to look at the evidence and make the assumption that QR codes are a consumer technology in their infancy, gaining traction among traditional early adopters and therefore it’s only a matter of time before they become more generally adopted among mass audiences.
But I’m not convinced.
And the quote at the end of the press release about that research inadvertently makes the point well (my emphasis):

“It’s clear from our research with Joule that younger consumers have been quick to integrate QR code interaction into their repertoire of digital experiences, but more education and information is necessary if QR codes are to reach a wider audience.”

The real problem here is that there isn’t one that needs solving by QR codes in most marketing contexts.
The basic function of a QR code is to redirect a user to a piece of content of some sort somewhere online. But there’s already something that exists that fulfils the same function – it’s called a URL or web address.
So how do QR codes stack up against URLs when used as calls to action in marketing and communications:

  • usability – the vast majority of people with access to the internet will recognise a URL and know what to do with it, whereas to successfully use a QR code to respond to a piece of marketing they need to recognise it, ensure they have a suitable app on their phone to handle it and then be physically able to take a picture of it. If you have to explain or educate about how to use QR codes, I’d suggest they’re not really fit for purpose in many of their current marketing guises – especially when compared to using URLs themselves as calls to action.
  • memorability  – much direct response doesn’t happen at the point of seeing the ad – while in most marketers’ dreams it might do, in reality consumers are exposed to hundreds of ads every day and don’t respond immediately. A good URL will be easily remembered at a glance and recalled later on. A QR code can’t be remembered without going through the hassle of snapping it in the first place.
  • context – it’s hard to see a context from which a consumer will respond to an advert or print publication where a QR code offers greater user value than a normal URL. Sometimes the uses of QR codes don’t consider the users at all – for example when it’s on the end frame of a TV ad for 5 seconds or on a poster on the opposite side of the railway line at a station. Other times, such as newspaper ads, it’s perfectly possible to see either a QR code or URL working as a direct response mechanism – it’s just hard to see why most rational users would opt for the QR code instead of the URL.

New Media Knowledge made a brave attempt to make the case for QR codes in their recent article. They quote Ivor Morgan, Head of EMEA marketing at ecommerce firm Venda:

“What QR codes carry isn’t just data. It’s the potential to extend an interaction beyond the original point of contact,” Morgan told NMK. “They can become out-of-hours shopping assistants if you use them in a shop window or you can use them to add to basket as Tesco Korea did with its subway poster adverts. Put them on your product packs and they can deliver far more useful information than the statutory content, calorie and caution information.”

Again, I’m really struggling to see the incremental value of QR in this context compared to the alternatives. What do QR codes do that URLs don’t?
Am I showing my age here and developing some mid-thirties luddite tendencies, or am I right that marketers are rushing headlong into a QR frenzy without really thinking about their customers and the context in which they interact with ads?


I work with founders and senior leaders in rapid growth businesses. My focus is building resilience, coherence and high performance in teams and organisations to enable sustainable business growth.

9 thoughts on “QR codes in marketing – why?”

  1. In the last week I’ve seen a poster advertising an event that contains a link to said event and a QR code that points you to the same destination. It’s duplication, it doesn’t add anything – after all Google Goggles will read both if you point your phone at it.
    I’m not convinced about the value of QR codes in marketing just to duplicate a link.
    But I think there is a lot of potential for using them to deliver something specific and useful at the point of access.
    So I like them on lamp posts, or grit bins because they can take you to an interface where you can log an issue with that specific item without relying on GPS or navigating a map or having to type in a very long and complicated URL.
    I like how they’ve been used at http://www.talesofthings.com/ to give background and context to objects again without having to use long and complicated URLs.
    I think the benefits for museums could be huge. It might be that audio guides are a lucrative source of income but I imagine they cost a lot in the first place, become gradually obsolete and they’re a bit clunky. Can QR codes provide a more discrete connection between individual artefacts and the in-depth knowledge museums hold about them?
    I also think QR codes have as-yet untapped potential in linking physical spaces. Hull has been celebrating the life and work of Larkin and in honour of his poem ‘Toads’ there was a Toad Trail around the city. Could QR codes have been on each one allowing you to check in on the route, find out about the artist, comment on the design, share pictures from your phone and read some of Larkin’s work?
    Could QR codes be useful on tourist information maps of the city? Not to show you where you are at that moment (because if you can QR then you’ll have maps) but to access content about the sites of interest they list – opening times, ticket prices, directions, special offers and exhibitions. Both static and unchanging but real-time and flexible?
    I wouldn’t write them off in a commercial setting either for doing similar – for pulling up what you need to know about a shop if you happen to be out and it’s closed or you see a poster: opening times, online presence(s), special offers, contact details. Not the whole web but the stuff which could be most relevant when you’re walking down the road?
    QRs might not last. If they end up being used to reinforce and duplicate normal URLs then I don’t see the point. But I think that’s selling them short. I’ve no doubt that the future contains some as-yet undiscovered simple way of melding the physical with virtual. At the moment I like QRs, I think they’ve a lot of untapped potential.
    Although as this is an (over-long) opinion drawn entirely from observation and not at all from experience I could be completely wrong! 🙂

    • Ben – thanks for that great comment. I agree with you in that there are applications for “out and about” use – but for me the jury’s still out on how marketers are currently using them. As you say maybe there’s untapped potential and it’ll need some creative folk to find that potential!

  2. Hi Simon,
    I tend to agree with all that you say the only benefit I see really is the speed in which you can get access to an online resource which can sometimes have a long url. I see no harm in offering an alternative for users.

  3. I’d have to question whether QR codes are really taking off. The barrier of having to download a designated app to view content is always going to limit usage.
    Katie Leaver, LondonLovesJobs

  4. Finally some oft missing incredulity. I only use QR codes to link to data that is changing by the minute–you’ll notice I didn’t say “real time” or “dynamic.” In NYC I use the QR to find out when the next bus will arrive at my stop.

  5. Simon I share your doubts about QR. I think it’s important to note that they were originally developed in Japan as a way of allowing people whose first language isn’t English to easily access URL’s which, at that time, had to be written in English. In that context it makes perfect sense and as a marketing tool it might make sense if its use is tracked (some QR codes don’t just serve the URL or other information, they go via a referral and logging service first).However, if the user were aware of the extent to which their actions could be logged they may not be quite as keen to try them. But, generally I agree that their current use is largely in the area of simply being the latest ‘cool’ thing to include.


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