QR Codes: Dead End or On-Ramp?

In a recent Ad Age article, Dave Wieneke argued that QR codes are a dead-end, transitional technology, to be quickly replaced by near field communication (NFC).

I agree with Mr. Wieneke that many uses of QR codes to date fall short. As my colleague Katherine Hedgepeth put it, they’re a “sign saying ‘hooray for our sign.'” Scan this QR code to see more advertising! Go to our website! Sign up for email! If this is the best marketers can do, we should hang our heads in shame.

If, however, we take advantage of the unique characteristics of QR codes, perhaps we can save them and us from becoming extinct. To my way of thinking, these characteristics are discovery, depth, simplicity, surprise, and exclusivity. Here are some examples in the marketplace today:

Discovery. Some of the best uses of QR codes to date were developed for interpretation, defined by the NAI as “a mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and the meanings inherent in the resource.” NAI members are people who work at parks, museums, nature centers, zoos, etc. and many have developed QR experiences that aid in the discovery of their resources, such as the World Park Campaign in Central Park. Perhaps marketers can learn something from them, as we, too, seek to forge an emotional and intellectual connection.

Depth. Some retailers and movie studios have done an excellent job of providing deeper experiences to interested customers. Scan a Best Buy QR code in a weekly circular or shelf tag to get inventory availability, reviews, product views, exclusive content, and deals. Scan the QR code in the “Ironman 2” movie poster for a synopsis, trailer, show times, and photos.

Simplicity. Mobile users are busy, distracted multitaskers. Whether we’re shopping, watching TV, in a meeting, or at the dinner table, our attention is fragmented and the phone is not our primary focus. The few clicks required to access information via QR code is easier than typing in a URL or searching to find the exact information we seek. Codes that can replace tickets, which are a hassle to print out and keep track of, are an excellent example of taking advantage of QR codes’ inherent simplicity.

Surprise. There is an element of fun in the QR code. The placement, form, and payoff are all opportunities to surprise and delight. Search QR code images to find some highly creative examples – a temporary tattoo, a plowed field, a sand castle on the beach. The form can be basic or beautiful, as SET demonstrates with codes in the form of a rabbit, the Red Cross logo, and for the Time Magazine red frame campaign.

Exclusivity. Although we can all see the trajectory of smartphone adoption, at this moment a substantial portion of your customers don’t have them and can’t scan your QR code. This allows you to engage with an exclusive subset of your customers who are likely to be younger, more affluent, and/or more tech-savvy. It also presents your company as a progressive, forward-thinking organization.

While NFC may be a superior technology, it is focused on a higher purpose: facilitating mobile payments. As such, experts predict it is at least two years off, according to a Sybase 365 survey of GSMA Mobile World Congress attendees. While new mobile payment ventures seem to spring up daily, there are complicated agreements to be worked out among the carriers, banks, and end users that make the Apple/AT&T partnership look like a walk in the park. When NFC becomes our payment method, will we also use it for discovery? Maybe, maybe not.

We marketers can find a lot of ways to forge an emotional and intellectual connection as we surprise and delight customers and favorably position our brands in this anything-can-happen mobile world. I don’t think it’s a dead end; I think we just found the on-ramp.

This column was originally published on June 17, 2011 on ClickZ.

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