The Real Failure of QR Codes (and Four Ways To Use Them Right)

Posted by · July 13, 2012 2:27 pm

Throughout the business world, QR codes seem to be getting a bad rap. However, when one takes a closer look, it’s tough to find any inherent flaws. Which leads me to wonder: Is the QR code really an epic dud, or are we just failing to use it correctly?

System Administrator Appreciation Day Fancy Ca...When a new technology is born, all too often our immediate response is to limit ourselves in the way that we implement it. This is especially true for businesses, whose first reaction at the advent such a technology is typically to look for new revenue streams instead of simply improving old ones. With the dawn of social media, businesses jumped at the chance to create their own profiles and plaster personalized ads across the computer screens of hundreds of millions of users. Yet even with over 900 million people now using Facebook, companies are still struggling to make their social media presence into a profitable venture.

This is hardly a reason for companies to abandon social media altogether. Rather, it’s an opportunity to reassess the real value that such an outlet offers. And to be sure, there are a number of companies that have recognized that value.

Unfortunately, the same has happened with the implementation of QR codes. After many failed attempts to use them as marketing tools, many businesses face a similar crisis of confidence regarding these clever codes. What’s worse, many tech pundits are leading the charge in forcing QR codes to an early grave.

Writing for TechDirt’s Wirelss blog, Leigh Beadon opines:

I’ve never understood the hype about QR codes. They appeared one day, and then suddenly every advertiser made them a priority, plastering them all over everything in print. It has always seemed like undue obsession with something that, ultimately, is not that useful to very many people—and that’s assuming most people even know what they are.

“[E]ven if QR codes were popular, they would be a doomed transitional technology no matter how you slice it,” Beadon concludes.

As one might suspect, Beadon’s opinion is not unique. For those who saw QR codes through the narrow lens of advertising, QR codes are an utter failure. And I would be inclined to agree, at least insofar as QR codes are used as embedded ads. A discussion with one of my coworkers reinforces this assertion.

“I don’t want to scan something on an ad just to be taken to another ad,” says Gary Weyel, Brand Manager here at Experts Exchange.

This is precisely why the QR code is failing. As with social media, companies are limiting themselves when they fall for the idea that tools like QR codes are only useful if they open up new revenue streams, when in reality that simply isn’t their best use. That is, the QR codes aren’t failing; the companies that misuse them are.

This is because companies don’t realize that, just like social media, the primary purpose of a QR code shouldn’t be as a means to pay for a service, but instead as a service in itself. Here are five useful ways to use QR codes to show you what I mean.

QR Codes on Price Tags

When I go to the store to buy something, the last thing I want to do is scan a QR code on a product if it is just going to try to sell me something. On the other hand, if stores were to put a QR code on a price tag that links me, say, to a set of FAQs about the product and maybe a side-by-side comparison of that product to similar ones on the market, I would scan it in an instant. Why? Because engaging that QR code provides me with a useful service that saves me time and money.

Japanese poster with QR codes

Without having to do a ton of research or wasting gas driving around to competing retailers, I can get instant access to the information that it would cost valuable time to compile on my own. Furthermore, I can find out what customers like me tend to ask about that product, allowing me to make a truly informed decision with my purchase.

This creates a win-win for consumers and businesses alike. Businesses use QR codes to help customers know that they’re getting exactly what they want, and in return, companies retain loyal customers. This is particularly true for big box stores, whose slim profit margins often leave managers with less service staff than they need to accommodate customer traffic.

QR Codes as Instruction Manuals

If most of us were honest, we would admit that we don’t read the instructions that come with our purchases. Most of the time, we simply remove the instruction manual from the packaging, only to throw it into the trash. Not only is this a massive waste of paper, but down the line, when our craftsmanship proves shoddy, those instructions don’t seem so useless anymore.

With a carefully and cleverly placed QR code on a product, customers would have access to a digital instruction manual with a simple scan on their smartphone or tablet. Again, this is a win-win for consumers and businesses. Manufacturers use QR codes to link to instruction manuals hosted on their site can use each site visit as an opportunity to learn more about what that customer likes. Maybe it’s a brief survey, an upgrade offer for the product the user needs instructions for, or other important manufacturer information that often doesn’t reach the consumer otherwise.

Whatever it is, using a QR code as a convenient link to instruction manuals results in better brand perception and in turn, opens up the possibility to cultivate long-term relationships with customers. And it saves trees (and paper costs) too!

QR Codes as Social Media Functions


Whether you’re checking in at your favorite restaurant on Foursquare or “Like”-ing a new product on Facebook, QR codes offer an immediate way for users to express loyalty to a brand without having to manually launch an app. In other words, companies get the feedback and social media cred they seek, as well as visibility in the news feeds of every connection that user has.

Meanwhile, the customer does not have to wade through an awful mess of offers and advertisements when s/he scans this QR code, and is instead quickly plugged right back into their favorite social media site.

QR Codes as Links to Maps/Schedules

Finally, if your business is a physical destination, don’t use a QR code to link to an annoying ad. Instead, use it to link the potential user to a map that routes the customer to your nearest location. By doing this, companies are able to remove inconvenient steps that billboards and other advertisements create when they tell their viewers to come visit. When I see a poster advertising a sale but don’t know where the company is located, I am more likely to forget about it or simply decide not to go. With a quick call to action like a QR code that helps people get there sooner, businesses can enhance the advertising that they already use.

The same principle can be applied for bus and train routes. By posting a QR code at a bus stop or train station, users can be connected to a real time schedule relative to their specific location. As a result, patrons are able to be informed quickly, avoiding more of the poor experiences that have a profound effect on customer perception of that service.

As you’ve probably noticed, there is a common trend throughout these and any other examples that, I would argue, make QR codes a useful tool for companies and create positive experiences for consumers. QR codes, like social media, should not be seen as yet another way to saturate people with advertisements. Instead, they should be used to enhance what businesses already do. Make a process or access to something more convenient for customers. Help them become more informed.

In the long run, it’s what companies provide using these tools—not what they try to extract from them—that ultimately builds brand loyalty.

For more on the uses of QR codes…