Whenever I mention QR codes, people laugh. It’s not so strange as it is the single most misused piece of technology ever created. When the QR codes gained momentum a couple of years ago advertisers and marketing departments at all companies plastered the things on everything. As big, and as often as possible. Then ut turned out not to be the breakthrough that everyone said it would be. Here’s a Tumblr showing pictures of people scanning QR codes.

When it failed everyone blamed the QR codes. There were number of reasons why it didn’t work: They are too ugly. People don’t understand what they do. People who do know, think it’s too cumbersome to download a QR-scanning app. People who have a QR-scanning app think it’s annoying to open the app and scan the code. And so on. Now, all of this is perfectly true. Only it has NOTHING to do with the failure of the QR codes.

The failure happened because the people who were using them had no idea what they did and what they should be used for. It was the new craze, so everyone was jumping on the train without thinking of slowing down and think, as usual. Because people who had the QR-scanning app were scanning them in the beginning. But most often they led to places that had nothing to do with the product that was on the advert, just the company website. Often it led to non-mobile friendly websites (that often had Flash). Often it led to a website that said the exact same thing as the ad. So they stopped scanning, of course. Who wouldn’t, right?

The same thing happened with on-site search. All search fields, except Googles was shit a couple of years ago. No one searched on websites anymore, because everyone had learned that it didn’t get you anywhere. I’ve been in numerous user tests where people use the browser back button to go to Google and do their search refinements there and then go back to the website that was being tested. Now that has changed, due to one thing and one thing only: people who build websites decided to make them good again, and then slowly people started using them again. But it took time.

If the content that the early adopters were shown were any good, a couple of years back, then QR codes could have been a hit. If scanning a QR code was worth it, then they would’ve told their friends to download the QR scanning app. Now they told them to not do it. It would’ve gained momentum and about now it would be a standard. If it was used correct right from the start, that could’ve happened.

But maybe QR codes just lost a battle, not the war. Because it looks like they are slowly gaining momentum again. Google uses QR codes for Android app downloads, WeChat (the What’s App of China) uses QR codes to add friends and some city governments use QR codes to aid tourists (here’s an example from Rio).

Now it’s not going to be easy because QR codes are ugly. But I think it can be done. If we do it again, and do it right this time around.


Here are some things to think about if you do try to start using QR codes in your marketing again.

  1. Always, ALWAYS, link to a mobile website when using QR
  2. Don’t link them to your company’s website. Link directly to more information about the product, or the topic. A QR code is a Read More link.
  3. Go even further than (2) and make a dedicated mobile website for the QR scanner crowd alone.
  4. Always embed a lot of analytics code in the QR link. But also embed unique info for each QR code. So if it’s in a Magazine, the web the user come to should start with “Hello Esquire reader!” for example.
  5. Don’t rely on QR codes alone. Use a short URL next to it, but make it easy to remember (as an example coke.com/summer is good, http://www.coca-cola.com/products/coke/campaigns/fun-in-the-sun is very bad).
  6. Don’t always use it as a link. It can contain just text as well. If it’s a read more text, put the text in the QR code, don’t just link to a place where the text is.