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SXSW Round-Up: Do QR Codes Really Suck?

QR codes: Just another over-exposed trend, or a meaningful part of cross-platform marketing strategy? There’s been no shortage of backlash since QR codes first started popping up everywhere from magazine ads to in-store displays and even outdoor billboards. Is the criticism justified, are QR codes just in their infancy, or is there already value to be found in using them smartly?

To find out, I attended a seminar at the 2012 SXSW Interactive conference titled, “11 Reason Why QR Codes Suck.” It was conducted by David Wachs of, a mobile marketing company, as an extension of his widely-shared blog post of the same name. Here’s what I found out:

  • QR codes were invented 20 years ago by Toyota to keep track of inventory on car parts (see our previous post, “Shazam Ads Succeed Where QR Codes Fail”).
  • Americans still don’t know what QR codes are. Want proof? Check out Pictures of People Scanning QR Codes on Tumblr.  Wachs quoted an independent study of QR code awareness among college students with smart phones. Here are the top findings from that study:
    • Most didn’t know what a QR code was or have a QR reader installed
    • Many thought just taking a picture would do it
    • QR codes often don’t work
    • They take too long. By the way, “QR” stands for “Quick Response”
  • There wasn’t much opposition to the statement that “QR codes suck” from other attendees. Though one person noted it’s not QRs that suck, but frequently their execution. That segued into an open discussion referencing epic QR fails; there are tons out there, but my favorites are listed in “10 Funniest QR Code Fails” from Mashable.
  •  Here are some of the most typical blunders:
    •  QRs in silly places, like areas with no data coverage, on moving vehicles (accident waiting to happen) or on billboards on highways (another accident waiting to happen).
    • QRs for the sake of having a QR, because that’s what others are doing. If your QR code only takes the user to your home page, just write out the URL. That way at least there’s an extra opportunity to reference the brand name.
    • QRs that direct people to non-mobile optimized web pages. That’s just kind of rude.
    • QRs that take up too much real estate. Marketers know how difficult it is to communicate your message without enough space. QR codes have to be sized based on how far away you expect users to be. If you’re putting a QR on a billboard, the QR may end up being the largest thing on it. Is it worth it?
  • A new critique (at least to me) on Wachs’ list was,  “QR codes stop people from being mobile.” Let’s face it, people typically don’t stop in their tracks to read ads on the street. You have a few seconds to grab the user’s attention and drive home some messaging. To scan a QR, you’ve gotta first stop, get your phone out, launch the app and then scan before you’re mobile again.

Photo: A collage of QR codes from SXSW 2012

In my opinion, most problems with the application of QR codes will fall into one of two categories:

  1. Blunders because of not enough thought (like QR codes in underground subways).
  2. Blunders because of too much thought (QR codes overcomplicating simple functions, like calls to action for “go to”).

If you’re a marketer using QR codes, ask yourself these few key questions now:

  • Does my target audience fall into the ideal demographic for QR code users (i.e., young smart phone users).
  • Is there a valuable pay off? Why should a user scan this code?
  • Is the ad going to run where it is fully accessible?
  • Would I scan it if this weren’t my ad?

If your answer to any of these questions is no, then say no to the QR for now.