A guest post by Nathan Amery, writing for http://www.prettyklicks.com

phone QR code
QR codes have been forced on consumers by brands and touted as the future of offline marketing, supposedly bridging the gap between the real world and the web. A study by Austin & Williams has shown that just over half of all smartphone users in the US have heard of QR codes, with just over 28% having actually scanned one at some point. But are QR codes the same as the printed URL of the 90s? That is to say everything had to have your URL printed on it, as it proclaimed ‘Look at us, we have a website! We’re very forward thinking!’. Are people actually finding them useful?

According to the same study, 6% of users had gone on to purchase after scanning a QR code – not that this tells us whether they would have bought anyway, but I felt 6% was pretty high – If I had an online ad with a 6% conversion rate, I’d be pretty pleased with myself.

However, there’s some companies using these things wrongly: For example, things I’ve seen QR codes on include:

  • Bags of potatoes (impossible to scan due to the fact it’s a crumpled plastic bag)
  • Subway adverts (there’s no Internet down there guys…)
  • Textured surfaces like brick walls, (there’s no way I’m going to able to scan that)
  • Billboards (Is anyone climbing up to them and getting out their phone?)

I feel these are all examples of using QR codes as a ‘me too!’ device, just like a business shouting about having a Facebook account before the whole social media thing became as mainstream as it is today. Technically pointless, but attempts to show some level of being ‘with it’.

Now don’t get me wrong: QR codes do have their place in advertising. The survey mentioned above was taken of a broad range of people; men and women, of varying ages and backgrounds. If your design is to appear at a tech convention, a comic book event or some other geek-hangout, QR codes are probably a must. Get creative with them; have them send users to a specific landing page for that offer, at the very least (Or a page specifically designed for whatever you’ve created). Or better, lead the user on a QR code treasure hunt to find each code, scan it, which displays the clue for the next one, ending in some form of reward.

The fact that QR codes are on everything these days means you’ll need to go one better with yours. You will need to not only convince the user to scan it, but also to convert (in whatever way you deem to be a conversion) based on that scan. So there’s four groups of people here: Those that don’t know what a QR code is; those that do, but think they’re a waste of time; those that aren’t into your message enough to bother getting their smartphone out and scanning; and finally those that actually are intrigued and savvy enough to scan your QR code.

You need to work out which of your audience your design is aimed at and think about what their motivation to scan is. If you’re aiming at women over 50, (no disrespect to women over 50 who are avid QR code scanners!) you could probably use that space for something better (or just avoid having a weird looking black and white square on your otherwise flawless design).

If your message is aimed at 20-something males (we’re in the right QR ballpark here), it’s still not necessarily the best option. Looking to promote something that has no real online aspect? A bar (which has no online offers, and only a simple website) for example. Adding a QR code is probably going to disappoint those who scan it (‘It’s just the website? Well that was pointless’) and those who don’t; are either going to not know what to do with it, or take a cynical view to its presence (‘This company is trying too hard to be cool’).

So the answer is yes, QR codes are great in some cases. But just like when companies use their Facebook accounts badly (The ones that beg ‘Please like us. Please Please Please!’) using QR codes incorrectly can be bad too, since it can give you that clueless ‘me too’ vibe that smacks of uncoolness.

nathanNathan Amery is the Director of Search Marketing for Pretty Klicks, a web agency specialising in web design, social media and SEO in Glasgow and Edinburgh.