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"Q" is for: QR Code

Nyla Smith | Tuesday, January 19, 2016

QR codes are soooo 2011. The QR code has been declared dead over and over again, but was it ever really alive? Let’s take a closer look at this misunderstood technology and you can decide for yourself.

What is a QR Code?

QR stands for “quick response” and, simply put, a QR code is a barcode, just like the barcodes scanned in grocery store checkout lines, except more complex. The barcode on that frozen meal you nuked for lunch today was made up of vertical lines, but QR codes are vertical and horizontal, which allows more data to be stored in them. (That is also why they are called 2-D codes.)

Unlike traditional barcodes, which are scanned by a red laser beam scanner, you scan QR codes with any QR reader downloaded as an app on your mobile device. QR codes can handle storage of all types of data, including website links and contact information, which is what makes them popular with marketers and business owners.

Here’s how QR codes work: Put your company’s URL into an online QR code generator and it encodes your URL and spits out the QR code as an image file. You then place your QR code image on your print piece when designing it, so when consumers scan it with their app, it pulls up your URL on their smartphone.

Want more details? Here’s the history behind the technology. Quite fascinating, really!

The Life of the QR Code

The appeal of the QR code is that it allows a connection between print and web by giving businesses an opportunity to extend their touchpoint to a more engaging and trackable medium.

From about 2011-2013 we started to see QR codes being used by many large international brands. The technology trickled down to some smaller businesses, but unfortunately it never really caught on at critical mass.

The exception is in Asian markets, where QR codes are still alive and kicking hard. They are much more prominent and integrated in countries like Japan and China, but in the western world, the QR code barely made a ripple in the market.

The Death of the QR Code

If QR codes are so great, what went wrong? As with anything new, it takes time for people to adjust and figure out exactly what something is, how to use it, and, most importantly, how they will benefit from using it. QR codes are no different. Many times QR codes were printed without instructions, so consumers had no idea what to do when they saw one. (It’s ironic that poor marketing led to the downfall of something so many marketers thought was the next big thing, isn’t it?)

Another reason the QR code never quite took off is the lousy user experience. Users have to download an app, open the app, scan the code, wait for it to load... and all for what? Many times, the payoff wasn’t worth the effort. (More about this below!)

And even if users went through all the steps, quite often the image wasn’t sharp enough for the app to read. Any blurriness due to poor print quality will render QR codes useless. Shaky hands don’t help either, and we all know how frustrating it can be to try to hold a phone perfectly still for a few seconds while scanning. QR codes also have to be large enough to be readable, which can take up valuable space on a marketing piece and can be more distracting than enticing.

Let’s be honest - QR codes are ugly. A clunky black and white grid? No, thanks. Yes, there are ways to customize a QR code to make it blend better with your marketing design, but the fact remains that it has to be distinct and high-contrast in order to remain readable, so again it can often distract from your branding or your primary messaging.

Marketers and business owners got so excited about what they “could” do with QR codes that they didn’t stop to think what they “should” do. Poorly executed marketing is pointless and a waste of time and money. (Just about everything is permissible, but not all things are beneficial, right?)

As a result, QR codes were misused left and right, without thought to overall strategy and user experience. Prime examples are having your QR code point to a web page that is not mobile friendly or using QR codes where it makes much more sense to use a different call to action. When you waste a consumer’s time, it reflects poorly on you, as well as the methodology.

Check out these examples of QR codes behaving badly. Makes you wonder what these marketing execs were thinking!

The Right Way to Use a QR Code

I can’t state this enough. The right way to use a QR code is with purpose. Do not use it just to use it. And don’t automatically count it out just because you hear it’s “dead.” A QR code is a tool, just like anything else. First figure out your goals and objectives, and then look to your toolbox - which should contain QR codes as an option - to see what will work best to meet your company’s needs.

Look at it from your users’ perspective. Is this really the best way for them to proceed from your print piece? For those users who don’t have smartphones, is there another way for them to act? If so, are you sure the QR code is adding any value?

You can simplify your QR codes (enabling you to use them at a smaller size) by using a URL shortener. Third-party services like Bitly and Google help you do this. Most also allow you to track usage of that short link, which brings me to another important piece of advice...

Always include tracking. The only way to know for sure how successful your efforts are is to test and monitor regularly. The services mentioned above are good, but if you want more control and have very specific tracking needs, you should use Google Analytics. Create a trackable link with unique parameters and use that URL when you generate your QR code. (Click here for instructions from Google.) Keep in mind that the longer your link is, the more dense (i.e. harder to scan) your QR code becomes. However, that’s a small price to pay for the valuable analytics data you get.

Don’t just link users to your home page, either. Instead, for purposes of tracking, user experience, and reaching the goals of your campaign, use landing pages that are designed for conversion.

The Future of QR Codes

I may be one of the few, but I haven’t counted QR codes out. I can’t say with any degree of confidence that widespread adoption will ever happen, but in my opinion, the technology is still useful. There are companies out there that actually use QR codes well and with great success. It all comes down to the execution.

As is always the case with technology, it’s not long before the next big thing comes along, building on the shoulders of the last one. There are some pretty nifty alternatives to QR codes that already exist.

Clickable Paper by Ricoh allows you to embed invisible hotspots within your design as it is printed. This technology is completely unobtrusive, but can still be scanned by your phone, just like taking a picture. These hotspots can be programmed with links set by you and can be changed at any time in the future via an online interface. You don’t need to reprint the piece in order to change the action when your users scan.

I’ve gotta admit, I thought Blippar was pretty cool when I tried it. The app uses image recognition to give consumers information about everyday objects around them. Marketers and companies can use the technology to provide augmented reality experiences when users scan (“blipp”) their branded print pieces. Download the app and visit Blippar’s online showroom to see how brands like Heinz and Lucky Charms are using it to make the print marketing experience come to life through your screen.

However, until alternate technologies like the ones mentioned above become more affordable for the small business owner, the QR code remains the most convenient way to link the print and web experience for almost zero dollars.

Nyla Smith is a Graphic Designer, Web Designer, Front-End Web Developer and Consultant with over 12 years of experience. She is the owner of n-Vision Designs, LLC in Hampton, Virginia, which exists to provide marketing support and brand consulting to small- and medium-sized businesses needing creative solutions. Contact Nyla if you'd like to discuss your next creative project. She can usually be bribed to a meeting with a cup of green tea and an oatmeal cookie.
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