Scanning QR code with smart phone Over 20 years ago, someone in Japan created a two-dimensional bar code. It was a revelation. It could hold more information than a standard bar code and was quickly adopted by the Japanese auto industry for product tracking, document management and other logistical tasks. And then, years later, a marketer put these two-dimensional bar codes to use in order to solve a problem no one had. Today we call them QR codes (short for Quick Response codes), and they’ve been almost completely misused by marketers worldwide for the last few years.

Trust me … when I first saw a QR code and how it worked, I thought it was cool. It’s a neat trick: Point your smartphone at a weird-looking box and it zaps you to a Web page. Kinda neat. The problem is it’s just not that simple. QR code scanners aren’t built into the camera software of most phones, so you have to download a separate app. And then, it’s not always a snap … often you have to wave your phone around like a fool trying to get it to recognize the QR code and scan it. And then, so very often, once it scans, you are whisked away to a company’s home page. Or to a page that doesn’t exist. Or to content that isn’t worth your time.

What this means is that most people have never scanned a QR code. And those of us who have? We’ve had almost exclusively bad experiences. So we’re left with a populace that doesn’t use them, and a handful of marketers that are still insistent on junking up their materials with them. We’ve heard all kinds of reasons why they’re still hanging on to them, but few of them hold any water. These are just a few of the most popular rationales we hear for continuing to use QR codes.

“But we have a companywide mandate to use them on everything we do.”
Chances are that mandate is three or four years old. From the good old days when QR codes were going to revolutionize mobile marketing. Well, they haven’t. The good news is that if you’ve been using them on everything you’ve put out into the world for the last few years, you’ll have oodles of data to support the near-certain fact that almost no one is scanning them (especially when you take your own people and partners who scanned them for testing purposes or mere curiosity out of the data set). Use that data and challenge the mandate.

“What’s the harm in putting one on there?”
Beyond the strategic futility of using a QR code, there are a few less obvious reasons to steer clear of them. From a design standpoint, they’re an eyesore. A high-contrast, random digital splatter of an eyesore that, in most cases, is the most prominent item on the page. And that eyesore detracts from your brand, your message, and your logo.

And increasingly, to many of your customers and prospects, seeing a QR code attached to your ad or direct mail piece is a sign you’re behind the times. It’s the marketing-tech equivalent of bell bottom pants or bolo ties.

“They’re free.”
No. They’re not. Yes, you can create one for free. And you can put it on an ad or direct mail piece for free. But that 2 square inches of real estate that it ties up is certainly not free. If you’re running a QR code in a full page print ad, it’s chewing up at least 2 to 3 percent of the page — that could easily add up to $500 in ad space. And that’s before we factor in the damage it’s doing by pulling a reader’s eye away from your primary message.

QR codes have a cost. And in almost every case we’ve seen, that cost is not outweighed by the benefit of using one.

OK … so if you’re not going to use them, what should you do? Use the good old-fashioned URL: It’s simple. We all know what it means. And most of us can type it (or talk it!) into our phone’s browser faster than we can whip out our QR code reader and scan it. It turns out we had it right the first time ― and then we created a solution for a problem no one had. It was a valiant effort, but, ultimately, it was a failed one. So, with a little luck and a hard look at the data, we’ll let QR codes go the way of the dodo and we’ll get back to solutions that truly serve our customers.

About Drew Jones

As the managing director of the Two Rivers Marketing creative team, Drew nurtures ideas into creative expressions that motivate. When he’s not at Two Rivers, you might find him along a trout stream in Siberian Russia. You can drop Drew a line at