QR Codes — Modern Marketing Tool or Last Gasp of Dying Print Industry?

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I find QR codes intriguing. They look weird, they seem a mystery, more complex than the barcodes we all grew up with, but seemingly not at the point where they have found a useful niche. Now that an increasing amount of us have these handheld computers we call smartphones, we have a lot more power in our pockets to scan barcodes and QR codes to dig into the information they contain. Whether it’s using a shopping app to compare the price of a product on the shelf versus what online and local retailers stock the same product for, or figuring out the price of a gift we were given (yes, I’ve done that), we now have an enormous amount of information at our fingertips if we just do the legwork.

Marketers and advertisers are seeking to take advantage of this with QR codes, which would seem to be the next logical step in bridging the gap between an ad placement and getting the consumer to act on the offer. According to this article in Adweek, “QR Codes Getting More Use in Magazines,” 10%-20% of QR codes that are scanned by users are acted on later. That’s a pretty good conversion rate, though their source didn’t have stats on how many QR codes are actually scanned by readers who saw the ads — e.g., there was no “yield,” as we call it in the online ad industry.

Other bullets from the article:

  • A survey of a sampling of magazine ads (72,000 placments) showed that 5% had QR codes
  • Out of those who noticed the code (once again, no exact stats), 5% scanned it with their phones
  • This is compared to 14% visiting the site mentioned in the ad, and 20% using a perfume strip if there was one
  • The code itself doesn’t draw any attention to the ad itself (except from nerds like me who like to try out their new toys) — it had no effect on the stats of those who noticed the ad

My thoughts on the above:

First, I’m surprised only 5% of advertisers used the codes. If you are going to the trouble of putting your web site on your print ad, is it really that much more effort to put on a QR code? This seems like low-hanging fruit, so I can only speculate that we are seeing a low degree of sophistication from either the marketing agency or the publisher, or both — you would think the publishers would be recommending this and facilitating the QR codes if necessary to show that they are in line with the latest trends. If I were an advertising product manager in print or in charge of that inventory, I would make it one of my mandatory specs for ads in my publication. As a side note, I’m actually surprised that 1 out of 5 people actually type in the url who notice it — that shows how far online presence has come these past 15 years in online.

Secondly — I have to wonder what utility QR codes have outside of the print industry — in other words, when print finally dies and it replaced by the e-book, will QR codes survive? I have seen them used on business cards, another form of communication and contact management that seems more about ceremony than utility at this point. Yes, we all pass around business cards, but do we actually use the information on them? Often we are already in contact with the people whose card we exchanged, unless it is at a networking event. I do have to say that the QR code on the card was the one practical aspect of the card itself — it made it very easy to transfer that person’s contact info into my phone vs. doing it manually.

Will QR codes make the transition to e-readers like the Kindle? In other words, will users actually scan a QR code on an online ad or a full-page Kindle interstitial, or will they just click on the hyper-link? QR codes feel like a transitional form of technology — I can’t help thinking that there will be something else afterwards that is easier to use, faster, and less cumbersome, than the QR code once print media dies.

In the interim, I do hope that QR codes become the norm on business cards and print commercials — heck, I think billboards would also be great uses for them too, if your smartphone reader can go that far. They have potential, but they need to be pushed in a big way, and liberated from traditional print ads into applications that leverage consumer awareness and deliver value to the consumer in the form of savings or easily-accumulated information.

Until next time — Glenn Highcove

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