How (not) to use QR codes

One of the most asked questions of me over the last three to four months is about QR codes – those funny-looking, two-dimensional graphic images that you scan from a mobile. The renewed interest I believe is due to the significant growth of the QR code in the US market and the volume of stories emanating from both Europe and the US about mobilised campaign successes using QR codes.

QR stands for ‘quick response’, and the codes were first created in Japan over 20 years ago to aid in manufacturing lines for the automotive industry. The benefit of two-dimensional codes is the ability to contain vast amounts of information.

There is no doubt that if the QR code is implemented properly it can have an incredible result. But there is also the risk that the volume of poor implementations could create consumer apathy and they become challenging to engagement.

I don’t believe that we are at that level yet and some smart adoptions or at least some understanding of their use will help. Often the best way to outline best practices is to explain what not to do. Some of these examples may seem extreme, and are taken from Australia, the US and Europe.

Here are the top six ways never to use QR codes:

  1. Don’t print a QR code so small such that most scanners won’t read them,
  2. don’t put QR codes in places that are dangerous to try and scan and in reality won’t work anyway – like freeway signs, flags, sides of buildings, moving vehicles (truck side advertising) or roadside billboards,
  3. don’t display in busy thoroughfares where people can’t easily stop and engage. There have been a few attempts to replicate the Tesco model, but instead of using an area where people can comfortably stand, read and absorb the campaign, the product posters with QR codes are displayed on stairwells, in busy corridors and other thoroughfares where consumers can’t stop,
  4. don’t give a lame experience, but ensure the QR code delivers some value and doesn’t just link back to a website that most likely isn’t even mobile friendly. Consumers expect some benefit with mobile. It’s no different to SMS campaigns. Linking back to a website achieves little,
  5. don’t simply link back to the same place or area – placing a QR code on a restaurant menu that simply displays the restaurant menu is wasting everyone’s time – as is a QR code on a website that links back to a website, and
  6. don’t try to embed the entire message in a QR code so that it is a massive code that has the potential to fail. One retail campaign had codes so big that my QR code reader crashed on every single scan. Use a URL or a link shortener as the code – the added benefit is that you can then continually change the target data (link, offer, product, price, video, coupon) and all the printed codes in the community remain active and fresh.

There have been some incredible campaigns with QR codes and the growth in the US is at a stage where consumers are almost hunting out codes, as they expect a deal, coupon, offer or some other experience that makes the effort worthwhile.

The key to all mobile campaigns, be they SMS, MMS or some 2D barcode like a QR code, is to deliver value. Make the experience something that generates word of mouth referrals. Consumers give something of value as a reward for the time it’s taken to scan.

There are some really exciting aspects for a marketer with QR codes. First, if you link to a landing page that has geolocation processing, you can track the location of scans and determine the best response locations based on the discovery points – is it railway station posters and, if so, which stations work best? Is it transit papers or magazines? Is it newspaper advertising or on product codes? Do people scan in supermarkets or wait until they get home? You can start to build some amazing analytics that can be fed back into the next campaign to maximise response rates.

Next, the life of the code can far outlive the life of the advertising or display point. If you intelligently use a shortened URL approach, it means you can change the target of the scan daily or even hourly depending on the campaign. Consumers will never scan something that says ‘Competition closed three weeks ago’ – instead you can deliver a different experience post-competition. You can run treasure hunts and implement a range of mobilised gamification experiences and, even though the codes may exist ‘in the wild’ for three months, especially when in bus shelters, posters or on a train, every consumer that scans will get an experience relevant to the time or date they scan.

So let’s look at some of the successes. Most of these are overseas and show the creative approach to engaging. A quick digression: scanning a QR code requires a smartphone (or feature phone). Australia has one of the highest penetration rates of smartphones and yet has none of the top 50 or so QR code campaigns. Are we that boring that we can’t get more creative?

A well-documented success was a beer company campaign at a festival where ‘personalised’ QR codes were created on a PC (personal computer), then printed and stuck on people at the concert. When scanned, it displayed a personal message created by that user. They far exceeded expectations in terms of uptake.

Another beer company produced a glass with an etched QR code that was only scannable when filled with their ‘dark’ beer. Any other fluid wouldn’t provide the necessary contrast. Very creative.

In retail in the US, some of the claimed successes have been using codes on pop-up shops, posters on street furniture and in newspaper advertising. One large US retailer used codes in-store to drive something as simple as joining its mailing list, but gave an instant 10% off coupon for the effort. The coupon was valid for 60 minutes only, but very contextual and appropriate.

Astonishingly, one of the most common mistakes made is the delivery of content that is not mobile ready – this includes links to normal desktop sites without an offer and for seemingly no purpose.

Therefore, the biggest tip I can give is that when you link to a website from a QR code, make sure that website is mobile friendly. You need to deliver a two- to three-second response time and so the format of the mobilised landing page is critical and the planning behind using splash pages and linked content is an important consideration.

I scanned six retail-oriented codes in the last week here in Australia and found that all six simply linked to a website front page with four of them linking to a non-mobile-ready page. All of these were wasted engagements. Why not create a customised landing page that at least elicits an email or mobile number and potentially a name and then delivers the customer to a ‘specials’ page with a few items in order to drive an impulse purchase.

The advantage of QR codes, at least for the short-term, is that the consumer knows what is expected of them. No longer are there long, complex explanations needed on how to scan and where to download a reader. Consumers are now savvy and experienced and most likely already have some scanner on their device.

One interesting piece of research from Econsultancy shows that over 50% of people have scanned a QR code and 18% of them have then purchased. Data from ScanLife indicates that 60% scan from home and, of all the stats, the most interesting is that the age group 25 to 44 represents over half the audience. When you take into account that around 28% of people never go online with their mobile and around 16% don’t even use messaging, then the scan rate and awareness of QR codes is significant.

I also find quite staggering the lack of creativity with QR code creation. They don’t have to be square and they don’t have to be black and white. As long as there is contrast they will work. You can embed logos and colourise to suit.

QR codes can be engineered to blend and fit almost any brand creative and yet still be obvious enough for the consumer to start interacting. Despite some negative commentary about QR codes, I believe they work very well over other strategies emerging like image recognition, because it’s obvious what the objective is: ‘scan me’. Other approaches are a little like having a phone number on the advert, but not putting the words ‘Text your name to enter’. QR codes can deliver great results and can be used to track and measure as well as engage with customers.

QR code campaigns are no different to other mobile channels: they won’t fix bad execution. Make the offer compelling, deliver some value and don’t waste the user’s time with branding informational messages only. Get creative with the visual aspects of the QR code, look at self- registering ideas, consider carefully what you redirect to and make sure, above all, that you reward a customer’s action.


Joe Barber
BY Joe Barber ON 2 November 2012
Joe Barber is a 25 year veteran of technology companies with the last five years focussed on mobile and retail. He is currently CEO and founder of with other notable start-ups under his belt being Third Screen Media, Sniip and Planet Internet. Joe has lived and worked in the US, Malaysia and parts of Europe and talks at numerous trade events worldwide.
  • Good point Joe.

    Especially point No. 4 where the QR code just redirect people to an awful looking site that you have to zoom in again & again to read the text.

    I’ve definitely seen some creative usage of QR code over the last 12 months or so & those that is a total dud.

    I think the whole idea of QR code needs to be based upon basic human behaviour – curiosity. People needs to be informed what’s in it for them to scan the QR code in the first place. A lot times it’s just purely based on impulse decision.

    Hence, the whole QR code experience needs to be customised for mobile layout at the very least and the success of the campaign ultimately comes down to WIIFM – What’s In It For Them.

    The Australian market has definitely picked up a lot of the QR code trend but there’s still a lot of work to be done on the awareness.