QR Codes: A Technology Without a User Base?

Image by Jackie Barr.

Quick-response codes, better known as QR codes, were introduced in the auto industry in Japan in 1994 to track vehicles during manufacture.  The first QR code scanner and reader applications for smartphones became available in the United States around 2010. For those unfamiliar with QR code scanning, it is a customer engagement technique where the user scans the QR code box with their smartphone, and the mobile device takes the user to a designated site.

There is an ongoing debate on whether QR codes are dying, or are still of value to marketers. Recent statistics from eMarketer.com show that 39% of US citizens between 18-24 have used QR scans in magazines, 38% in mail, 35% on posters, and 21% on websites. But these statistics are based on people scanning a QR code at least once. These statistics may be based heavily on curiosity rather than continual usage. 

After doing some research, I came up with a lists of reasons why QR codes could be on a steady decline, what they’re competing with, and some examples of creative ways to use them.

Why are QR codes unpopular?

1)   Lack of exciting content. Users are experiencing that some companies’ QR codes are simply taking them to the company website or a boring ad. Often, using this call to action is inconvenient and not worth the trouble. The users want a new and exciting experience when using this technology.

2)   No built in QR scanner on the iPhone. Being an extremely popular phone for young individuals, the lack of a QR code scanner adds more inconvenience for the user. If you take a picture with a regular Android camera, it opens a QR Code reader app if you have one installed. Galaxy S IV and some Sony and Nokia models do have a built in scanner. In the App Store, you can find a few QR code readers, the most popular by ShopSavvy

3)   Bad locations. QR codes need to be in an area where the customer has time to go through the process. This includes bus stops, subway stops, magazines, etc. Some QR codes are in places with customers in a hurry, or have bad cell service!

What are the other options for creative digital marketing?

1)   Alternate reality experiences. These also require a downloaded app, but allows for a much richer experience. These are becoming more popular with companies that want better consumer engagement and have creative marketing schemes.

2)   Universal Product Code (UPC). These are the standard bar codes on most items available for purchase, and can also be used for presenting information to consumers with a scanning device. 

3)   Near Field Communication (NFC). These are smartphones / similar devices that establish radio connection by touching together or close proximity.

4)   Gee.Am. This is a creative way for people or advertisers to transfer data to their mobile devices via audio signals.

What CAN QR codes help with?

1)   Shopping. The best example of this is Tesco HomePlus in South Korea, as an online store at bus and train stations where shoppers can use QR codes in a virtual grocery store, and the items will be delivered to their homes shortly after. Macy’s has also recently added QR codes on clothing signs, where when the customer scans the code, they receive tips from the designers on how to wear those clothes. Anyone can create a QR code that links to a PayPal ‘Buy Now’

2)   Campaigns & stories. The World Park Campaign used QR codes to create an interactive board game formatted campaign throughout New York’s Central Park for the participant to view photos or read information about certain areas.

3)   Restaurants. QR codes can be on windows, menus, posters, etc. at food establishments. A creative use of QR codes in a restaurant is Mesob, an Ethiopian restaurant in New Jersey. Mesob has QR codes on their tables that take the user to instructional videos on how their coffee is made. You can also implement QR codes with a takeout menu.

4)   vCards & Resumes. Individuals can add a QR code that presents more information about their professional lives when scanned. This allows for the recipient to better engage with you on a digital media platform. 

5)   Promotions. Users can win free items by scanning the QR code, for example Taco Bell and ESPN raised awareness with their QR-code-only promotional campaign for the Bowl Championship series college football games.

6)   Music. QR codes can allow the user to download free music. A user can also make their own QR codes for music.

7)   Social media. QR codes can connect to a company’s social media sites. An obvious way for companies or brands to get a ‘Like’ & ‘Follow’.

8)   File transfers. Via Xsync, users can transfer whole files, photos, groups of files. This app has a built-in QR code scanner to read thee codes using the phone’s camera. It is currently only on the iPhone.

The hassle surrounding using these codes seems insurmountable, especially during busy schedules. On the other hand, some argue that QR codes and scanning could replace typing, which is becoming a hassle for mobile users. Some argue that anything that does not involve typing is automatically better. When QR codes are presented well and used at a time where the user can go through the scanning process, they present an opportunity for a unique advertising experience. But for now, it seems that QR codes are just another technology that is more bother than it is worth. Though scanning a couple of them now will be entertaining for a few minutes each, it’s definitely not a process many people are making a habit of since most results are unsatisfactory. What is the future of QR codes? It’s up to the consumer to decide. 

What are your thoughts on QR codes? Comment below or tweet to @brittanyander!

Brittany Anderson

Syracuse University School of Information Studies class of '15 Interested in all things involving tech, entertainment, and entrepreneurship.

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  • liddy

    I’ve experienced using very informative QR codes in art museums, where one does have the time to learn more about the background of a particular piece.

    • That’s great! That’s another appropriate use, similar to the World Park Campaign. If brand marketers want similar popularity and use of the codes, they need to target areas where consumers want to and can spend the extra time to learn more.

  • ‘User base’ in relation to QR Codes does not mean very much. It’s like talking about the user base for TV ads only instead of requiring a TV you need a smartphone. The simple fact is that if the reward is sufficient for the individual and they have a smartphone they will scan the code if they can. QR codes are not in themselves a call to action http://2d-code.co.uk/three-qr-code-maxims/

    • leoklein

      The simple fact is that it’s usually completely unclear where that QR Code is going to lead you. That seems to be a characteristic of most qr codes out there in the wild. This probably explains most people’s lack of interest.

  • Here’s one of many posts for using QR Codes in the classroom…

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  • leoklein

    The way things are working out, probably the greatest benefit of QR Codes will be the ability to access the tech chops of its chief promoters.

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  • QR Codes is good but with less popularity, generate free QR codes here http://www.byscholar.com

  • natalie

    the one time i have used a QR code that has proved invaluable was on the side of a childs car seat that i was having trouble installing. i noticed the code, scanned it and it linked me to a video of the correct way to install. great placement, and the only useful application ive come across!

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  • ScreenTag

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  • Mark Smith

    I believe the bad location placements of QR codes are one of the major reasons that QR codes may be unpopular. I have recently found an app LogoGrab It allows companies to use their logo as a QR code, and therefore companies do not have to worry about bad placement, making it more convenient for users.

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  • Hanna

    I agree that sometimes QR codes don’t offer the customer any valuable content for the effort that it takes! But I think when they do offer content in a fun way, it can be quite inventive and different. For example this brand http://www.magliettefresche.co… offers qr readers on tshirts which link to an ebook on your chosen device. It’s interesting concepts like this that make me question whether there are no value at all in qr codes…obviously in terms of longevity maybe its not the best idea? I’m not sure but I like the unique concept.

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  • jhgl hgyi

    Actually yeah, these things have been dying down. Good, because they were an eyesore. Now lets just hope Facebook and Twitter eventually collapse…
    I saw these things everywhere, but I don’t ever remember seeing someone scanning one with their phone. As easy as it may be, there still may not be a point, and hey, not everyone has a QR code scanner, or a phone, or even knows what they are.

    But QR codes, they’re like bar codes. Your article title, that’s like saying that bar codes don’t have a user base. Well of course not, they’re just meant companies to use, not for entertainment! But yes, I get the point that companies may not be using QR codes as much anymore.