Do Mobile 2D Barcodes Have Long-Term Viability?

By | June 16, 2011

While the use of mobile 2D barcodes such as QR codes continue to pop up in print marketing and advertising at a brisk pace, a growing chorus of pundits are questioning their long-term relevance and overall sustainability. Most notably, Dave Wieneke, a digital marketing strategist, wrote a fairly scathing article last week on AdAge titled “Why Marketers Shouldn’t Waste Their Time With QR Codes“. In essence, he states that marketers are trying to cash in on a “cool technology” and that the process for consumers to interact with these codes is too complex. To this point, Wieneke goes so far as to say that the QR code is a “dead-end technology” (similar to the CueCat), serving as a transition to richer mobile engagement technologies like Near-Field Communications (NFC).

This article prompted dozens of responses in the comment section, with some agreeing with Wieneke’s assessment and many others coming to the defense of mobile barcode utilization in marketing and advertising. Ultimately, while I think Wieneke’s statements are a bit overblown, the viability of mobile 2D barcodes well into the future is a fair question to ponder. I generally agree that many marketers, advertisers, and print service providers are implementing mobile 2D barcodes in their campaigns and collateral without much consideration of the context of placement and end-to-end user experience. I highlighted just one of many examples of poor execution last month.

The truth is, if companies keep blindly throwing mobile 2D barcodes on their campaigns and collateral, Wieneke’s and otherspremonitions will come to bear. There are a few things that companies looking to use or currently using this technology need to consider to ensure 2D barcodes are being used in a smart and effective manner.

  • Marketing Principles: One of the biggest issues I find with the inclusion of mobile 2D barcodes in marketing is that many seem to throw marketing principles out the window for the sake of using a new technology. Why are you putting a 2D barcode in your campaign in the first place? What’s the call to action? What will make people “click” on the code to enter an engaging experience? If there’s no value communicated to a viewer as to why they should engage further with the campaign, then they probably won’t.
  • Context: What application are you going to leverage the 2D barcode for and where will it be displayed? Putting a QR code in ad at a location where there’s no wireless data service (e.g., the subway, dead zones) is a surefire path to failure. Also, who’s your target audience? Remember that smartphones with capabilities to actually scan and process these codes, while growing, still only make up roughly 30% of the overall mobile phone market. Furthermore, many of those smartphones don’t come pre-loaded with code readers, requiring a third-party app download. If your target is upper middle-class or affluent people between the ages of 13 and 30 that have an affinity for technology or gadgets, 2D codes may be right for you.
  • Education: Perhaps there is some debate about how to marketers and advertisers approach educating people about how to scan the code they are plopping on their visuals. Many campaigns simply feature the 2D barcode with no instructional guidance whatsoever as to what to do with the code. Others do provide some type of guidance as to how to interact with the code; sometimes rather short, sometimes rather long. Since many applications are still emerging, my suggestion would be (in most instances) to include some sort of instructional text in association with the code. Even simply pointing viewers to a specific mobile app they can download can go a long way for heightening awareness and education about how to interact with mobile 2D barcodes.
  • Optimization: I’ve highlighted this before, so I won’t go into too much detail, but please please please make sure the site you are linking to is optimized for viewing on a mobile phone. If you don’t spend time on the full, end-to-end experience that the user will receive, why put the code on your collateral in the first place? Delivering a bad experience does a disservice to those that really want to leverage this technology in a smart and effective manner; don’t do it.

Ultimately, it’s consumers that will decide the fate of the use of mobile 2D barcodes. If they don’t find them valuable and useful, they’ll simply stop interacting with them, and then these codes will indeed be ancient relics, just like the CueCat.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot of independent, third-party research about consumers’ and marketers’ perspectives on interacting with and using mobile 2D barcodes. InfoTrends is in the process of launching a study titled Mobile Technology: Making Print Interactive, that will be one of the first independent studies on this topic. It will include quantitative research of consumers, marketers, and service providers, as well as complementary qualitative in-depth interviews with key industry players. The study plans to launch in July. If you’re interested in sponsoring this research, please drop me an e-mail; the study is expected be completed by the fall.

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8 thoughts on “Do Mobile 2D Barcodes Have Long-Term Viability?

  1. Joe Vivinetto

    Bryan: nice recap. I’ve been intrigued (obsessed) recently with QR codes for B2B and internal marketing communications. Are they a fad? Maybe, but I think it has viable applications…as long as marketers are thoughtful of the audience. And don’t underestimate the need to TEST various code generators and readers. Thanks for the insights.

  2. Bryan Yeager Post author

    Thanks for your comments, Joe! Great advice for marketers venturing into 2D barcodes.

  3. Alin Jacobs

    Thanks Bryan. Your QR Code overview is definitely though provoking. While QR Code capability may limited to only 30% of the phone in the marketplace, it is still am impressive market to target.

  4. Bill Gallagher

    QR codes are a viable communication conduit, but because they continue to be used improperly we are confusing the market. A few examples of this include QR codes on emails as links, on direct mail, and on television ads. It’s as if marketing companies are not grasping the simple point: QR codes are for mobile devices. QR codes are best positioned to enable users to opt in for more information. The QR code site should be small, simple and above all: EASY and Quick. These are for people on the go, scanning a poster to get more information or to sign up for a promotion. Keep that in mind marketers, and stop littering your creative with useless QR codes. Think before you print.

  5. Rachel @ Last Res0rt

    QR Codes are for a specific purpose — to take users with phones (who aren’t already on a computer) and interact with them.

    They’re no more or less useful than a hyperlink would be on a website, and should be treated as such.

  6. chuckl8899

    Bryan, what you fail to point out, and what most marketers are missing is that the codes themselves, whether they are QR codes or MS Tags are actually the least important element in the exercise. Yes, they have to be readable by a smartphone and properly placed where people are most likely to scan them, but if they don’t deliver an amazing user experience, they’re a waste of time and people will soon stop scanning them. Unfortunately, most of the destinations that the codes resolve to are merely websites, often not optimized for mobile, that don’t fulfill the promise of the code. For some examples of codes that are used properly, check out Sports Illustrated, where the MS Tags resolve to videos that enhance the static print experience. You might also find this issue of The Bulletin helpful.

  7. Bryan Yeager Post author

    Thanks everyone for your comments on this topic!

    Chuck, while I agree with your sentiment, I specifically stated in the second paragraph:

    “I generally agree that many marketers, advertisers, and print service providers are implementing mobile 2D barcodes in their campaigns and collateral without much consideration of the context of placement and end-to-end user experience.

    I have also written an extensive piece on the specific topic of delivering an engaging experience when implementing on WhatTheyThink. There’s no doubt that the user’s experience after they interact with a code is crucial; I don’t think I’ve failed to point anything out in my continued commentary 🙂

  8. Paul Carney

    If only a third of the photo capable smart phones out there, that’s a measily 50,000,000 potential users, name any other media at the almost no cost, and you’ll not find any. As a printer we are seeing first hand growth of 2-D codes from business cards to products on the shelf to u-tube video’s. I’d rather be a participant than a doubtful observer like so many print shops did with digital print (fad) and mailing technologies. Some of us that take this seriously are still growing and prosperious. Need any more reasons? I didn’t think so…

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