QR codes declared dead—not so fast, some say

An Advertising Age column proclaimed obsolete the symbols that mobile phones can scan to go to websites or videos. Not so fast, say some communications pros.

Have QR codes come and gone, or is there still value in the technology?

There’s no clear consensus, but proponents and detractors are having their say.

In a column posted to Advertising Age’s website this week, online marketing strategist and blogger B.L. Ochman said the technology—through which mobile phone users scan symbols using special apps to visit websites, watch videos, or download other apps—is past its sell-by date.

“I was an early proponent of QR codes, but now I have to admit that they are history,” she wrote.

Why? QR codes have largely been implemented badly, she argued, in areas where they couldn’t effectively be scanned. Other technologies, such as Blippar or Touchcode, are more convenient and work better, Ochman wrote.

However, some communicators say QR codes are as useful as ever; others concede the technology has reached a make-or-break point.

A bad rap?

QR codes have earned a less-than-sterling reputation because they’re often used in ways that don’t connect, says Linda Pophal, a communication consultant with Strategic Communications. Most of the ineffective uses of the technology have been aimed more toward doing something new than doing something effective, she says.

When they’ve been used well, they really work, Pophal says. She points to a few examples, such as the copious use of QR codes at Ritz-Carlton hotels and Perky Jerky’s use of QR codes on its packages.

“While other tools may be added to the toolbox, my opinion is that all may still have a place,” Pophal says. “There is still a place for QR codes.”

Max Goldberg, co-founder of social media marketing firm Shmedia, says QR codes are so cheap and so easy to use that they won’t go away anytime soon.

“Their value isn’t diminished by other mobile scanning breakthroughs; it’s highlighted,” he says. “Beyond the simple opening of URLs in a mobile browser that everyone already understands about QR, QR lets registered users only log in to websites, shop at a virtual store, and even make banking payments.”

Moment of truth

Though some recent reports show QR code use has been on the rise, not everyone who has used the technology for communicating organizational information has continued to do so. Rebecca Noricks, communications manager at W.W. Kellogg Foundation, says she’s used QR codes only in “a very limited capacity” since putting them on the foundation’s 2010 annual report.

“We used one in our 2011 annual report to connect readers to a video in our print piece and a few on some signage in our lobby related out our annual report so that visitors in the lobby can scan and access articles or videos,” she says.

Anand Rajaram, product manager for mobile at Hubspot, says QR codes were supposed to be the future of marketing two years ago, but because they require special apps for users to scan them—QR code scanners aren’t built into mobile phone operating systems—they can be inconvenient.

Until mobile operating systems start including QR scanners, “customers will find the interaction with QR codes clunky compared with the ease of downloading and using an app, and marketers will seek out options that provide them with easier, frictionless options to bridge online and offline intersections with potential customers,” he says.

Avoiding pitfalls

Though Ochman and Pophal disagree about whether QR codes are still relevant, they agree on one front: Organizations that use new technologies could fall into the same traps as those that have tried and failed with QR codes.

“All of these new options will similarly fail if their applications are not well aligned with objectives and audiences,” Pophal says. Campaigns must be “designed to drive some meaningful interaction or outcome that can best be delivered through that technology.”

Ochman offers a few tips in her column for implementing new technologies in communications, including using certain apps only when it makes sense to use them, explaining clearly how those apps work, and employing new technologies only when it adds something unique to the user experience.

Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.

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