QR Codes and the Costly Price of Marketing’s Cutting Edge


In marketing, as in life, just because it’s new and popular, it does not mean you should do it. One of the latest trends in consumer marketing has been the use of QR Codes (short for Quick Response Code). The two-dimensional matrix was first created by the automotive industry but has now become popular with marketers. But even a great tool in the wrong application is too often ineffective.

Interstate bilboard with QR code

These codes are effective because they can hold a lot of information and are able to directly link smartphones to mobile-friendly websites where consumers can interact with a product or brand in a media and commerce-rich environment. My company, The A Group, has been successfully using QR Codes in marketing campaigns for a long time. While I am an early adopter of tools that might give our clients a better chance to communicate with their audience, I’m careful not to do something for the sake of being avant-garde. Pioneering technology doesn’t necessarily translate into being effective. Often, “cutting edge” means spending more, making mistakes, and paving the way for those who follow. That’s when the cutting edge becomes the bleeding edge.

A QR Code on an interstate highway is not only a waste of money, it’s downright dangerous and potentially illegal. Can you imagine trying to scan a billboard with your phone at 70 miles per hour?

Before you get enamored with the latest tool, gadget, or strategy (Not every organization needs an app; but that’s the subject of another post.), ask yourself these questions:

Who is my target audience? Understanding your audience is critical in deciding which tools to use to reach them. If I’m reaching senior adults, direct mail might still be my best option. One of our clients gets an impressive 40% return on their mailers because of its aging demographics.

Does it remove barriers? Effective marketing finds the most dynamic way to connect the target audience with a desired outcome. I saw a church bulletin with 10 QR Codes on its pages. Each code landed on the church’s website with the same information on it. Only one of them took me to an online sign-up page where I could register for an event. The church needed only one code. After scanning the first, most people would never scan another. “Oh, it only gives me the same information,” we all would reason.

Does it ad value to the consumer? The best tools, apps, and campaigns find a way to give consumers something of value and in doing so give them a reason to engage and to pass the information forward. I bought a nutritional supplement which came with a QR Code that took me to a mobile-friendly site on how to use it for optimum results. The site featured video testimonials of fitness experts. I was able to scroll through different body types and find the one that I was most interested in pursuing and was able to watch the expert tell me about his exercise and nutritional program.

What has been your experience with QR Codes? Have you ever used them?

  • Marty Mathis

    I have seen them everywhere and I have a smart phone but I have not yet found a compelling reason to scan one. Instead of just posting a code, marketers should tell me why I should scan it in the first place.

  • I like your three questions – very to the point!

    We have had several clients either 1- want to use them but don’t need to or 2 – should use them strategically but aren’t on board yet.    Since we work a lot with real estate, it’s an industry where it is often debated on where/how to use.   Taking a prospective buyer/tenant directly to the property information without the hassle of digging online or going through the listing agency is a fantastic way to narrow down to serious buyers!  What medium to use them in has been where the questions often arise – and questions like this very much help to make that determination.

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  • As you point out, the questions to ask for mobile marketing tools such as QR codes are essentially the same questions to ask for any good marketing campaign. The goal is always to reach your audience, provide them something of value, and maybe even get something from them in return. Using mobile does not negate the need to ask good questions.

    One element about QR codes that I think gets passed over too often is their trackability. You can (and should!) analyze complete data regarding who scans your codes, when and where they scan, and what they do after scanning (if anything). The church bulletin in the example could have found low scanning rates in response to the straight website code, then implemented the signup page code to give people a more specific call to action (which should accompany any marketing effort, but particularly QR codes). 

    The fact that all QR codes look quite similar highlights the importance of telling users what the code will do and why they should scan it (as Mary suggests). Great stuff!

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