Are QR Codes Over-Hyped Digital Bridges to Nowhere?

When Mobio, “a leading mobile technology firm,” proclaims that QR code usage has risen nearly 5,000 percent in the last year, take it with a grain of salt. The power of small numbers is at work.

Breathless news like this, and blog posts proclaiming 2011 the Year of the QR code, and Fast Company advice on  13 more ways to use QR code has me scratching my head. Some even say “QR Codes Could Change Print as We Know It.” Really? Print has been around a long time. How long will QR codes endure?

Invasion of the QR codes
We’re seeing giant QR codes on billboards, store windows, and even on urinals! This is clearly a case where the medium has become the message. When the hype ends, there’s often less then meets the eye.

Walking through the Portland airport, I noticed the Columbia Store has QR codes on its windows to extend its shirt display. Huh? Since when do I care enough about a shirt to snap a picture of a QR code? Especially when I can walk into the store, see and touch the shirt, and actually buy it?

The problem with QR codes
Smart phone users in the US must still install special software to read the codes, get a clear photo which may take more than one shot, and wait for their phone to boot up a web browser and render a page. This seems like a lot of time and effort unless you really know where you’re going.

Who currently uses QR codes and why
Only a minority of smart phone users actually use QR codes, and much of this use is due to novelty. Let’s consider Japan, where QR codes were once the rage, but have now settled into the background.

A study from NetAsia Research showed that 76 percent of the Japanese have (or to be more precise “know they have”) the ability to access QR codes. Obviously some use the facility more or less than others, but the average across this group is 1.24 times per week. That’s not profligate; it’s a golden bullet.

The main reasons given for scanning the codes is also illuminating. There are really only three: 31.6 percent to use a coupon, 30.9 percent to apply for a special promotion and 22.7 percent to obtain more information on a product. This matches current US research that shows top usage by people who said they’ve used a QR code was to secure a coupon, deal, or discount (53 percent). Source: AdRants, Steve Hall, Mar. 22, 2011.

The future of QR codes and control
Behind the shelves in the US, there is a power play underway by retailers who want to restrict packages entering their store from having QR codes that take visitors anywhere but to their store’s own landing pages. Pretty smart. If you were Walmart and Home Depot, wouldn’t you want all those codes focusing the buying experience on your brand and under your control? We’ll talk about this more later.

The reality is that QR codes may be just a transitional technology that is quickly replaced.

With what? I’m seeing Near Field Communications catching 0n for payment in Europe, and Google’s betting on this big.  Google recently dumped QR codes from their Google Places program.  Coverage of this begins with the words:

Only a year ago QR codes looked like the next big thing…

By the time some see the bandwagon, there are more people riding it than watching. Today’s game-changing QR code can become tomorrow’s pet rock.

And while there are creative uses for QR codes that I love, they aren’t going to change the planetary orbit.  Its not the “Year of QR Codes.”  But it may be the year of Orbees. Ask any nine year old; they know.

Only a year ago, QR codes looked like the next big thing.

3 Responses to "Are QR Codes Over-Hyped Digital Bridges to Nowhere?"

  • [...] question here, as Econsultancy guest blogger Dave Wieneke explains with reference to QR codes, is whether they will gain widespread adoption. To get people to [...]

  • Letty

    May 26, 2011

    Interesting article, however I want to point out that I didn’t say QR codes could change print as we know it, as you suggest. If you actually read my blog you will see I asked the question, “Could QR codes change print as we know it?” and left it for the reader to decide. It’s an attention grabbing headline to get people thinking. Whether transitional or not, there is no denying that it is a link between the printed word and the digital world that has the potential to develop in other ways. Print has been around a long time, that’s true, but it also needs to adapt and change to meet the digital world or become gradually less relevant. From printed postage stamps (Post Offices the world over are closing because people no longer send written letters) to advertisements in magazines being replaced with digital banners online – print is under attack from all digital angles as marketers try new ways to reach their consumers at a much lesser cost per 1000 impressions. At any rate you make an interesting argument and QR codes may be transitional but there is no doubt they are part of the evolutionary chain that will see print more and more aligned with the digital world – and that is crucial for print’s survival in the future.

  • Alex

    June 14, 2011

    [disclaimer: I'm the CEO of an image recognition company, LTU technologies]

    “The medium has become the message” – this is so true! QR codes have been popular for being there, not for what they brought to the user.

    Also, I totally agree with your comments on user experience ownership for retailers. We offer image recognition technologies that are not dependant on QR codes, but recognize the product itself, and app developpers can link the content they want with that product.

    This is bad on the one hand of course, as retailers will own your store experience. But on the other hand, some of our clients are building user powered product review apps that can provide you with a different point of view, and retailers can’t prevent it unless they make all their packages matte black…

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