My Thoughts On QR Codes: What Works, What Doesn’t

I had the pleasure of attending The Art of Marketing event in Vancouver at the end of November. One of the presenters was Scott Stratten (@unmarketing) a ‘media’ guy (social media, marketing, communications) who spoke about bringing your best to your work, social media and in life. One particular topic that struck a chord with me was the use of QR codes.

You know what QR codes are, right? They are the barcode-like square that has a pattern of black and white pixels that can be found on many pieces of marketing collateral. Like a barcode, you are supposed to ‘scan’ the QR code which then sends you to a website. You ‘scan’ the code by taking a picture of it from your phone and then an app sends you to the site. Easy, right?

Well – maybe not. Stratten’s point was that while QR codes can be useful, they are usually not used in the right way. My favourite example of his was seeing a QR code on a highway billboard from the local policing agency…against texting and driving! So it’s ok to whip out your phone, carefully focus on the QR code and take a picture of it but NOT text? And in a moving car? He showed us examples of other egregious uses of QR codes which included other billboards and signs on the back of buses (Stratten’s rant on QR codes).

Here’s another article from Gizmodo about the ‘basics’ of QR codes that also talks about the pros and cons of the technology.

It got me thinking of my own bad QR code use. We were coming up with a marketing campaign for a product that was targeted towards a ‘Jersey Shore’ crowd – in fact, the event was hosted by a cast member of the show! We were a sponsor and had an agreement to provide some media at the party (club card, logo on step & repeat, among other things). The Marketing team and I got together to pitch ideas for the card concept, copy and visuals. We came up with a sexy ‘pool’ themed card that had some simple but impactful copy…with a QR code. We were excited to use the code – it was right up our product niche (a smartphone app), audience (young, tech saavy) and added an extra measurement tracking to our campaign (unique page, tracking hits). But did it work? No.

Our expectations for the campaign weren’t particularly high to begin with – these are club cards, after all – a piece of material that is haphazardly strewn around the club, handed out but there was no follow-up. We didnt even have a rep there to answer questions, hand out cards or personally show the product. But for a QR code experiment, it probably wasn’t our best tactic.

  • In a dark club, it will be difficult to photograph.
  • How many of those that read the card, looked at the code, but had an applicable app?*
  • Our initiative/copy was not compelling enough to get people to go through the process.

*In the Gizmodo article, they detail that not all QR code apps are created equal. There doesn’t seem to be a standard ‘reader’ API that developers use, thus not all QR codes can be scanned by one app.

My learning from evaluating this campaign as well as taking in the words of Tarantola and Stratten is that context is key. One hilarious example Stratten had was seeing a QR code on a mobile site…so how exactly is one supposed to take a photograph of it? Here are a few of my thoughts on QR code use:

1. Context of medium.
Clearly. Not on a mobile website. Or any website actually…you’re already on the web! Just use a link! From the previous sources it’s key that the code has to be viewed in a static, well-lit area. It has to be logical! Really most print material could work for this: flyers, signage (eye-level and appropriately sized, please), magazine ads, business cards and handouts.

2. Compelling copy
It has to be compelling enough for the user to take the time to scan the QR code. It’s not as if you just SNAP the picture and are suddenly at the site. Someone has to take out their phone, open the (hopefully appropriate) app, focus, take a picture and then wait for the site to load. If you’re going to use a QR code – make it for a really good reason. Make the content really tantalizing, enough for them to do the work! It could be exclusive content that’s specific to the code, a giveaway, a free app download – people love free stuff!

3. Make it a great experience
Once you’ve got the user to your site, it has to be a great experience. It’s on their phone, remember, so mobile optimized! If your content is a giveaway or a multi-step process make sure it’s smooth and intuitive. You’ve got the user on the page! Congrats! And now the challenge is to keep them there and complete the ‘experience’ (whether it’s to read an article, email sign-up or contest mechanic).

For my current role (content writer for a retail store) I don’t think we should use QR codes. Our demographic of customers isn’t super tech saavy, and it is difficult enough to have our online content and social media efforts pay off. However, for a more modern store I may want to leverage QR codes with special deals or coupons. For example, if there’s a display on cookware – you can use a small sign to display a QR code for “a comprehensive comparision guide and special deals”. You can set up a site with a small chart with helpful purchasing information and maybe a coupon that can redeem in-store (show the coupon) or on an e-commerce site (can use an ’email this coupon’ = also potential virality). Targeted, value-driven initiatives like this can leverage QR code technology to your benefit – good luck!

Categories: Uncategorized


Communications specialist by day, baker/cook/triathlete/dog-owner by night. I blog about my adventures inside and outside my kitchen. Come take a look - no big whoop!


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