Why Marketers Shouldn't Waste Their Time With QR Codes

An Important Advertising Lesson You Can Learn From a Rat

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I was in New York last week walking down a street in Chelsea when I encountered the largest rat I have ever seen. It was 30 feet tall. Fortunately, it was an advertising medium and not a live scavenger. It was one of the inflatable rats that unions have been using, and I was immediately drawn to it. As I approached the rat, a union member handed me a flier and explained the grievance he and his fellow members were there to tell people about. The rat made the moment memorable and created an instant connection between the protesters and me.

If someone had figured out a way to do that with a QR code, we would know it by now. We've seen them everywhere -- bathroom walls, billboards and rub-on tattoos -- tossed like digital spaghetti against a wall in hopes that some of it will stick, or click, to an ad. Overuse of a new technique is nothing new. New technology tends to follow a predictable path from discovery, to overuse and disillusionment, and eventually, a proper or right level of use. But in the case of QR codes, that "right level" is likely to be fairly low and short-lived. Because it's the marketers, not the customers, who are so enamored with it.

Various talking heads have called this "The year of the QR code," and said that the codes will revolutionize the print industry. Does anyone remember the Cue Cat? It was a device that came out in the 1990s and readers were going to use it to scan bar codes in magazines, which would take them to innovative websites. Sound familiar?

QR codes have a big leg up on the bar codes that were read by the Cue Cat. The technology to use them is already in most people's pockets. We would assume this type of access might play a major role in the QR code's success, but that's only part of the story. The rest of the picture shows why we shouldn't get too attached to the QR code.

Much is promised. Little is delivered. Remember last summer 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?"

QR codes can actually impede the conversation. First, you have to assume not everyone knows what they are, so you have to explain how they work. Then, you just hope people are willing to download the app and go through the hassle of getting it to work. Then and only then will they be exposed to whatever brilliant website you have put together. And the majority of the time, this process neglects the critical issue of why someone would want to do any of this in the first place. Right now the answer to that seems to be, "Because marketers thinks it's cool."

This is a dead-end technology. This is a transitional technology, and other options are headed to market that will quickly displace it. Improvements in mobile search far outpace QR capture. Near Field Communications will provide richer machine interfaces. Google Places has already abandoned QR codes for NFC chips. Does "mini-disk" ring any bells? They were smaller than a compact disc and couldn't hold nearly as much information. The QR code is the mini-disk of the future.

It's not all bad though. There are some good QR uses. These are the ones that actually make people's lives easier -- like displaying a boarding pass on a smartphone to a ticket reader. But the day of huge billboards that are nothing but QR codes is definitely past. Go get me an inflatable rat!

Dave Wieneke is a digital business strategist who speaks internationally and blogs on the future of digital marketing at Useful Arts. He has directed digital for Thomson Reuters Legal, Sokolove Law and the Christian Science Monitor.
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