Too Legit to Quit QR Codes (Don’t do it Just to do it)

[This post is featured at Grand Rapids Social Diary as a guest editorial for May 24, 2011!]

Hammer ... err ... QR Code Time!

QR or “Quick Response” codes have been around Asia since 1994, and a few years ago they finally started to pop up in the US.  There was a brief period a couple of years ago where they were a fad (a way for the tech savvy to show off).

Sadly, just like the ascot or Hammer Pants, that time has passed.  If you want to use QR codes now, you’ll want to have a very specific, well-defined strategy that makes use of their unique properties.

Here are some questions you’ll want to ask yourself:


1. Are QR codes a good fit for my audience?
You’ll want to make sure that your audience is of the more curious/whimsical variety, or at least patient – reading QR codes can occasionally be a hassle to read (older phones in particular that don’t have auto-focus can be a pain to try to read QR codes with).

2. Is my audience tech-savvy?
Consider, for example, your audience’s access to smartphones: are they likely to have them?  Are they also likely to be savvy enough to work an app that reads QR codes?  If not – you may want to invest your time in something else.

3. Where will I be interacting with my audience? (Or what new opportunities do QR codes provide?)

QR codes are for interacting directly with your audience.  By that I mean that they must be physically-present and have enough time to interact with your message.  Think “out and about.”

While it’s possible to display them in TV ads, you likely won’t have enough time to allow the audience to find its phone, load the app, and snap the photo before the image disappears from the screen.  Same goes with mobile billboards or bus advertising; the time needed to get ready to capture a QR code almost demands that the code and audience be stationary.


1. Is the web an important component of this campaign?

If not – you may have a tough time finding use for QR codes.  Though they can contain virtually any type of text, the most frequent use of QR codes is to drive someone to a web presence.

2. Is my website mobile-compatible?

If not – don’t bother.  Remember: you’re driving people to a web destination via their mobile phones – so you’ll want to make sure your website is accessible to mobile browsers.

3. If my campaign isn’t web-based, do I have an innovative way to use QR codes that will make using them worth the hassle for my audience?

QR codes are a great way to clue in early adopters and opinion leaders to your brand; you can reward the curious for taking the time to investigate your QR code by providing them with inside information or perhaps some sort of incentive.

They’re also great to build engagement through gaming: if you have the resources, creating a scavenger hunt, a virtual tour (with links to streaming audio/video), or points-based game that rewards people for touring your location(s), visiting your website(s), sitting through demos, or  reading your materials can be a great way to increase contact with your audience.  PR Newswire did a superb job of this at the last PRSA National Conference in Washington D.C.

4. Is there an easier way to do what I’m trying to do?

If you’re trying to add an interactive component to a campaign – make sure there isn’t already an easier way to do what you want to do before you invest a lot of time creating a web-based application from scratch, or printing up a bunch of QR codes.  You can accomplish some of the same ends by making sure you’ve claimed your location on Foursquare, Google Local, or Scvngr (all of which have the added benefit of a ready-made audience).

5. Do I need to reach a specific audience, or conceal my message in any way?

QR codes can be a great way to separate the wheat from the chaff and just speak to a specific group of people (by combining a code with a simple headline/message that uses particular language).

I could imagine they would also be a great way to poach customers from a competitor from within their property.  Think of it: what if Biggby Coffee (a midwest chain that originated in East Lansing) printed up QR code stickers with coupons for free coffee and pasted them on, in, or near Starbucks locations?

(I’m going to trademark “QR Poaching” and demand a quarter every time someone says it from now on).

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