Guide for the Perplexed: QR Codes

From Clever Cupcakes, Montreal (@clever_cupcakes)

Ever seen those square bar code-looking thingies on the bus or train or in a magazine and wonder what they were? They’re called QR Codes and they are being used increasingly in interactive marketing in the U.S.

These little barcodes can store text or URL info and are used to  point  your phone to information  like websites,  videos, contact information, etc. Some visual artists have incorporated QR codes into their work,  such as this 2009 public art exhibition in Amsterdam , and some entreprenuers have adopted novel uses for the technology like the above QR Code cupcakes for Twestival Montreal, a Twitter – based charity event.

Having originated in Japan, QR Codes have been used for marketing and entertainment in Japan and Korea for years now and are nearly ubiquitous, but for the most part hasn’t caught on here in the U.S. with the same enthusiasm. I have two theories as to why:

1.) Consumers haven’t been sufficiently educated about what QR Codes actually are and how to use them by the companies/organizations using them.

I noticed an ad on the train earlier today promoting a non-profit. There was a QR Code at the bottom. The text: “Take a picture of this QR Code to learn more about us!”

Two people on the train were looking at the ad. One person asks the other, “What’s a QR Code?” The other says “Oh, it’s a Google app.”

There were two levels of fail going on here. First off, the ad itself failed to explain what a what a QR code is and only vaguely explained how to use it. Secondly, I believe the individual on the trainl who did recognize what a QR Code was had conflated QR Codes in general with one particular use of the technology,  specifically Google Places.

In general the  marketing/tech world has a bit of work to do to educate the public on this technology. It’s not difficult, but some level of explanation would help to encourage its use, which them brings me to the other issue hindering the use of QR Codes:

2.) Most of the time QR Codes point to really boring content that no one cares about

Most of the time, scanning a QR code doesn’t really offer much for the user. Marketers use QR codes as a vaguely interesting way to point people to existing content that users wouldn’t care about even if they were sitting at their computers at home: boring websites, boring ads, boring contact information. There’s still a “so what” factor with QR codes, where the content hasn’t caught up with the technology. What would motivate someone to scan a QR code when they can check out your organization’s website at home or work? Offering exclusive information or special deals could be the solution.

I was definitely on the QR Code bandwagon for a while, encouraging it for my workplace and for volunteer projects. I still think it’s a great technology with a lot of potential uses but waiting for it to catch on surely isn’t working. The company or organization that manages to educate users while offering something new and different will eventually win this race. It could be Google, based on the exchange I saw on the train, but time will tell.

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