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 others‘ premonitions 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.