Enter the Matrix: Are QR Codes a fad or genuine marketing strategy?

Written by: Drew Lyon   Austin, Texas

Posted on: April 20, 2011


Imagine you’re walking down a lively street during lunch hour (imagine you actually have an hour for lunch)…

You brush by fellow pedestrians unnoticed; your eyes glaze over as you pass another clothing boutique (or was it a restaurant?); the colorful letters ‘SALE’ and ‘SPECIAL’ no longer even trigger a response from your brain. You’re so conditioned to see the same words and same symbols–over and over–they switch your mind to auto-pilot.

But then you stop; your eyes lock onto an abstract black & white symbol–it doesn’t belong–a square, with smaller squares in three out of four corners. It looks suspiciously like a barcode except more pixelated…

What am I looking at?

You’re looking at a QR code: a quick response code containing embedded information. QR codes are being touted as a new way for businesses to interact with customers. More specifically, for businesses to interactively market themselves by teasing the public with hidden information in the form of abstract black and white symbols. Also transforming traditional print media (magazine, flyers, brochures, etc.) into an interactive medium. How intriguing.

The underlying info might be text, contact details, a hyperlink or one of several other commands. Who knows? Our naked eyes can’t decipher this puzzle. Neither squinting nor going cross-eyed will reveal the underlying message; it’s not a magic eye poster.

Let’s check out a few examples

Businesses are displaying QR codes as billboards, on storefronts and in print ads.

So how does it work?

(Would you like the blue, or the red pill?)

First, you need a smartphone (equipped with compatible code scanner/reader) to lock onto the symbol. Currently, 68% of QR code scans are performed by iPhone users, compared to 26% on Android devices. Once you’ve successfully scanned the image, you will either be presented with basic text, or immediately redirected down another path…

Down the digital rabbit hole

(So you chose the red pill…)

Here’s what you can expect: basic QR-reader functionality includes automatically opening your mobile internet browser to a predestined web page, generating an outgoing text or email message, adding contact info, even making a payment. Beyond that, QR codes are commonly linked to special promotions or digital coupons.

But why would anyone go through so much trouble to be advertised to?

For the same reason Neo chooses the red pill in The Matrix: our fundamental need to uncover reality. Behind the abstract square symbol (behind the green and black code that is the ‘Matrix’) is another layer of reality.

Unfortunately, you’re not always thrilled by what you uncover. Even if the reality you reveal isn’t quite as bleak as the one Neo finds (the human race having been reduced to batteries), you may still feel cheated if all you get is a link to a business’ homepage or a line of text containing their phone number.

How to make it all worthwhile (for the customer)

If you plan on sending consumers on a journey to seek the hidden truth (in order to promote your business), then make sure their trip is worthwhile. In other words, give them something of value.

Exclusive information (industry knowledge, early event sign-up, full product details, etc.), substantial discounts or promotions, and various forms of entertaining content all offer real-world value to the customer.

How to make it all worthwhile (for the business)

QR codes are valuable to businesses because they demand active personal engagement. Once a person engages your QR code, they have effectively submitted to being marketed to. They are actually asking for it. “Bring it on,” they’re saying.

And furthermore, generating the QR codes themselves is basically free. There are a number of websites that produce free QR images while also supporting basic analytics (tracking number of scans, for example). However, the main expense comes in how, or where, you choose to display the image.

Some more ways businesses are displaying QR codes

Businesses are associating QR codes with established marketing messages. For example, overlaying QR codes on well-known characters, placing on business cards, or attaching to social media marketing.

But will anyone see it?

Businesses with high-traffic storefronts are encouraged to print QR stickers or banners for display to walk-bys. If you sell physical products, you may want to place QR codes directly on the packaging. This is especially helpful when you can’t list all product specifications on the package or are distributing products to a variety of retailers.

If you are currently utilizing traditional print advertising (magazines, newspapers, posters, etc.), you may want to add a QR code to your next print ad. This should help you compare typical ad response to the response you get from an advertisement featuring a QR code.

At least it’s not permanent, right?

QR codes are static images who’s functions cannot be changed once generated. However, if for example you create a ‘www.mysite.com/qr-code-promotion’ page on your website, you can update the page at any time. This way, you don’t have to replace all of the QR code stickers you’ve been plastering to people’s bumpers, you just update a web page. Easy.

Other creative options include: screen-printing QR codes onto shirts (or hats, bikinis, socks, you name it–), incorporating them on business cards, or even (consider yourself warned) tattooing a permanent scannable image directly to your skin (not recommended for start-ups).

So what’s there to lose?

Because of their low cost, displaying QR codes at your physical location is a relative ‘no-brainer.’ But, starting a new QR-based marketing campaign using traditional media is a risky unproven strategy. One that savvy marketing agencies would be hesitant to endorse fully given the limited amount of research done on effectiveness of QR marketing.

What we do know is that QR codes are being scanned with greatly increasing frequency.

The facts are these…

The number of QR codes scanned increased by over 1200% in the last quarter of 2010. This is due in part to a busy holiday season and largely because more and more business are choosing to display QR codes. As far as demographics go, persons 35-44 years old are most likely to scan a QR code. A valuable demographic to reach considering this represents individuals approaching their peak earning age.

Will the trend continue?

It’s too early to tell, but if the use of QR codes continues gaining momentum at this rate, it will be hard for any business to ignore. Presently, there is little data to compare ROI for QR-centric campaigns across various marketing channels but it would appear that QR-frenzy is reaching mainstream consciousness.

Approximately, 50% of people are aware of QR codes and 1 in 3 have actually scanned one. If the ‘movement’ (let’s use that term loosely) continues to mature and starts to demonstrate an impact on bottom line sales, it’ll be time to look at QR codes as a “genuine marketing opportunity.”

But for now, we think it’s safe to classify QR codes as a quickly growing “fad” worth experimenting with. That’s what we’re doing…


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