Do QR codes work? Depends on how you use them

For those who don’t know what QR codes are, they’re those images plastered all over all sorts of advertising that,

They work when you use them right.

when scanned by a smart phone, take the phone’s owner to a website or other online posting.

Some uses of QR codes are here to stay because they actually make people’s lives easier – like the ones that display your boarding pass on your smart phone to an airline ticket reader. Or like the Croatian national postal service’s new 3.10 Kuna stamp with a unique code that each letter-mailer can key in on a mobile site and track the letter’s progress toward delivery.

QR code use worldwide is growing. According to 3GVision research, use was up 20% from second to third quarter of this year alone.

But all too often, it’s also growing dumber.

Like radio for the deaf

Too many advertising messages place QR codes where the audience can’t physically use them – like using radio to sell exclusively to deaf people.

Imagine you’re driving to work in downtown Richmond at 55+ miles an hour on I-64 one morning, and there’s a billboard with a QR code. Are you really going to fish out your smart phone, aim it at the billboard, scan the QR code and at the same time keep your car from crashing into others before the billboard disappears in your rear-view mirror?

That’s obviously dumb, but it doesn’t stop advertisers from using QR codes on highway billboards that way.

There’s a similar problem with QR codes in 15- or 30-second television commercials.

Another use, that doesn’t appear to be dumb at first, is on mass transit where you have large captive audiences with nothing to do but look at transit posters and plenty of time to scan them into their smart phones. But in bigger markets than Richmond – New York, Washington and San Francisco, to give three examples – mass transit is largely underground, where signals can’t get to smart phones.

The same Croatian government that was smart about QR codes for stamps was also dumb enough to consider QR codes linking to a tourism site to be displayed on cars’ license plates. As B. L. Ochman notes in Advertising Age, “To use them, you’d just whip out your smartphone, keep your eyes on the road wile you find your QR scanner and take the scan while tailgating the car in front of you at high speeds. Should you live through this, you are directed to a tourism website. Sadly, it seems many potential tourists might die before they get to book their trips.”

Promising much, delivering little

All too often, when consumers physically can scan and use the QR code, the result hardly seems worth the effort.

“Remember last summer,” Advertising Age columnist Dave Wieneke asks, “when Calvin Klein unveiled a giant QR code on Houston Street in New York? Probably not. The code took people to yet another video of alienated, attractive, semi-dressed 20-somethings traipsing around urban landscapes.Yawn. Where haven’t we seen that before? That was the advertising equivalent of ‘I shaved my legs for this?'”

They work when you use them right

But when you use QR codes with a bit of intelligence and a lot of inspiration, your campaign can be a major success.

  • Hennessy cognac produced a limited run of bottles whose labels featured art by Brooklyn designer KAWS containing a custom-designed QR code with an image of a Hennessy bottle in the center. So far the mobile site that the QR code leads to has gotten 1.3 million hits – 600,000 of them from the QR code scans.
  • In a co-promotion with Lady GaGa, Starbucks used QR codes for an online and  offline six-round scavenger hunt with prizes of GaGa’s music and Starbuck’s gift certificates. Thousands of fans played.
  • Macy’s Backstage Pass uses QR codes to give shoppers fashion advice, tips and trends (all no doubt having to do with merchandise Macy’s sells).
  • And Google’s new WebGL Bookcase Chrome application lets you browse thousands of books from a virtual 3D book rack and buy books, then scan QR codes to read them on your mobile phone (magnifying glass not included).

It’s not the tools

So are QR codes good or bad marketing tools?

As the old saying goes, it’s not the tools that count; it’s how the workman uses them.