Making the QR Code Work Harder for Your Advertising Dollars

Mobile codes such as the quick response (QR) have been around for more than a decade, though its popularity has traditionally been in Japan, Korea, and some parts of Europe. Used by many advertisers due to its license-free, the QR code has been used extensively by early adopters to disseminate content associated with medium where the code is scanned.

QR Code on an Outdoor Bench in Bangkok’s Siam Square

Despite its relative cost advantages vis-à-vis other mobile advertising mediums such as short messaging service (SMS), mobile users were deterred over the years by the need to have a QR code reader installed on their handsets. In the past, some handset manufacturers pre-installed the QR code reader on the mobile devices prior to its distribution to the mobile operators, hoping that it will create the necessary momentum to promote the code as a viable advertising medium. However, the comparatively small screen size of mobile handsets in early 2000 diminishes the user experience while accessing the content disseminated by the code owner. Moreover, any immersive and interactive mobile content disseminated by advertiser to the mobile user requires a connection to the Internet. Such connectivity was charged at variable rates, discouraging the sustained interactivity required by such mobile content to communicate its desired advertising messages.

Today, the popularity of the QR code has spread beyond its traditional geographical markets to countries where the confluence of smartphones (with built-in cameras) and generous mobile data removed user adoption barriers described earlier. Advertisers, armed with overwhelming evidence of the pervasive penetration of “always-on,” Internet-enabled mobile devices have incorporated QR codes in their communication materials. We see them in newspaper and magazine print ads, platform screen doors in subway stations, and billboards placed outside of retail shops. The intent is to add elements of digital advertising (via the mobile handset) to such physical installations, thereby increasing the advertising value of the latter medium.

PayPal’s Mobile Commerce Initiative with QR Codes in Singapore

Inevitably, most advertisers hear the positive anecdotes of QR codes and its successful case studies by early adopters before integrating these codes in their communication messages. Yet, it is important to recognize that a QR code advertisement requires the mobile user to activate the QR code reader on the handset to scan the code. The question is whether this action is culturally “comfortable” by the target audience in public areas such as subway stations and shopping malls.

Thus, mobile handset users scanning the QR code are likely to draw curious observations of the public, many of whom may not know what this user is doing. In this instance, the cultural dimension of the mobile user is critical. If this user (i.e., the advertiser’s target audience) fits the demographic profile of the uninhibited mobile handset owner between 19 and 24 years old, then the probability of the QR code being scanned by the target audience is high.

Conversely, if the advertising message targets working professionals with a diametrically different demographic profile, then the application of the QR code in public arenas may draw a different result relative to the former example. Some will argue that countries with high uncertainty avoidance will resist the “call to action” by the QR code to do a non-conventional action (i.e., scanning the code on a mobile handset) in public. Others will point to the perceived deference by Asian professionals to avoid variability when in the public realm that could potentially draw unwarranted conclusions.

For instance, an advertisement (with a QR code of course) for a professional job recruitment-site displayed on the platform screen doors in a subway station is supposed to draw mobile users from the professional working segment. However, the scanning of the QR code by these working professionals could point to unnecessary conclusions by their peers. This is especially true for professionals who want to access the job-site but do to wish to disclose that intent publicly.

As a result, the QR code campaign on the platform screen doors is unlikely to draw as many code interactions as some would expect. Clearly, the cultural context of the placement behind the QR code exerts a stronger influence over the presumed expectation of scanning the code when users see one.

Nonetheless, the increasing use of such mobile codes signals a shift in advertisers’ belief that today’s mobile handsets can be a conduit to bring the benefits of the “Internet experience” to their target audience. Yet, its deployment must be calibrated to meet the user experience and more importantly, perceived expectations, of smartphone handset owners. Only then can the QR code demonstrate its full value and work harder for advertisers.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.