Everyone loves QR codes -- except consumers

At least somebody got it right.

Quick Response [QR] codes — those bar-code-like things you see on everything from rental cars to Bratz dolls, should be a marketer’s dream.

Since the early days of direct-order coupon ads in the early 20th Century, advertisers have known that the simpler the response mechanism, the higher the response — and what can be simpler than pointing your smart phone, scanning and clicking?

QR codes make every advertising medium instant direct-response — everything from the Times Dispatch to the packaging at Wal-Mart, Martin’s or Kroger to the billboards along I-64.

Enterprise Rent A Car pastes QR codes on the left front windows and attaches them to the keyrings of 1 million North American rental vehicles so that passers-by and drivers who are so inclined can get information from theĀ  car’s manufacturer. JC Penney has gone hog-wild with QR codes, including holiday gift tags that let the recipient hear a recorded message from the giver. Some funeral homes even sell tombstones with QR codes that link to an obituary of the dearly departed.

QR codes connect target audiences with the instant gratification of a sales message, video, or e-commerce portal. This means that retailers can increase productivity by serving more customers with fewer salespeople.

Best of all, they’re precisely measurable, and if there’s one thing marketers love, it’s metrics.

So what’s not to like?

Maybe the fact that consumers don’t use them.

Largely ignored

According to Forrester Research, 95% of Americans who own smartphones did not use QR codes throughout the three months ending July, 2011. And the 5% who did aren’t exactly your prime consumer target audience. They’re affluent, but also young and male.

There are several reasons for QR codes’ massive non-use — some having to do with technical limitations and some resulting from what can only be described as dumb advertiser mistakes.

Due to technical difficulties…

The first of these technical limitations is that different kinds of QR codes require different applications for scanning them, and not everybody has the one for yours.

The second is that too many of the people who have the right apps just don’t know how to use them.

But the biggest problems are those that advertisers create themselves.

Shooting your QR code in the foot

For example, QR codes need to be surrounded by a certain minimum amount of white space in order to be scannable. Some advertisers don’t leave that border, in the interests of esthetics. Others make them too small, so they won’t fight the graphics of the advertising or packaging they’re part of, and in the process render them unscannable.

Still others unthinkingly put their QR codes in places where there’s no Internet connectivity.

United Airlines, for example, very cleverly put QR codes in their in-flight magazines, forgetting that once the jetway door closes, all cell phones and interactive devices have to be turned off. Virgin, which offers in-flight wifi, could get away with that, but then Virgin isn’t United.

It’s not a problem in Richmond, where all mass transit is above ground, but Channel 11, the local Fox affiliate, and Red Bull put QR codes on New York subway posters where, again, there’s no connectivity.

In Seattle, Miller Coors placed QR codes in bars and restaurants on New Year’s Eve so that patrons who’d overindulged could click for taxis. It never occurred to them that anyone too drunk to drive is also probably too drunk to aim a smartphone well enough for a clear scan.

Yet another unforced error that marketers make is directing those few consumers who do click to a full-blown website instead of a mobile one. As a result, it takes foreverĀ  — or at least longer than most concumers are willing to wait for — to load. And if your site has Flash and your consumer has a iPhone, it won’t run at all.

Avoid the “And then what?” effect

When consumers do scan and follow the QR link, the result is all too often a big letdown. Going to all that trouble to get useless boilerplate or the advertiser’s regular home page makes consumers feel cheated — too cheated to ever try again.

If you’re using QR codes, it’s essential to give your customer something well worth his or her while for taking the effort.

In the UK, the Radisson Edwardian hotel chain puts QR codes on its restaurant menus. These let diners see what a dish they’re considering looks like and how it’s made before they choose it — and does so far more quickly, accurately and consistently than human waiters do.

At the Denver airport, FirstBank, which bases its advertising campaign on being helpful, has posters with QR codes that let fliers with smart phones or tablets download puzzles and public-domain books to make the waiting time go faster.

MogoTix software uses QR codes to send virtual boarding passes to airline passengers, saving paper, frustration and time.

And with PYOW! software on Mailchimp.com, local Richmond retailers can build traffic by sending QR codes with personalized, time-sensitive coupons or sale notices to past or prospective customers.

Scans don’t always equal sales

Even when QR codes are genuinely helpful to consumers, they may not do much for your bottom line.

Last year, Home Depot put QR codes on spring plants so that customers could learn which go best together. They continued the QR test with Christmas lights and artificial trees. But according to a spokesman, response has been slow.

Macy’s sent out QR codes linking to videos from clothing designers. The store chain reports positive customer feedback and response above expectations (though not what those expectations were in the first place) — but it took a national television campaign promoting the QR cards to do it.

But advertisers still love them

Consumers may not be using QR codes, but marketers still are. Even though the response is so low. Even though responses don’t necessarily lead to sales.

It’s “another instance of shiny-object syndrome,” says Melissa Parrish of Forrester Research. “Something becomes trendy or sexy, and marketers feel they have to jump on board to position themselves as innovative and make sure they don’t fall behind.”

Maybe they can afford to waste money on QR codes that don’t work, but you can’t. So think before you use them — about how and where you’ll display them, to whom, and what’s in it for them if they follow through. That way, your love affair with QR codes won’t be unrequited.