Why your QR code is not working

By Alex Traska on 11th Nov

As designers, Makermet become part of the process in putting marketing campaigns in front of consumers. Over the last two years we’ve encountered Quick Response (QR) codes on many occasions. There are great examples and there are bad examples and we've helped some clients discover how they might use them successfully in multi-channel marketing campaigns.

Well established for many years already in technology driven consumer markets such as Japan and South Korea, QR codes are barcode squares that can contain information (often a URL) that automatically opens in a scanning device’s (often a smart phone) browser. I’ll spare a more detailed introduction, as research has found that although awareness of QR codes is high (evident in their prolific littering of advertisements and product packaging), their actual use and hence effectiveness as a marketing tool remains low, especially in the United Kingdom.

So why aren’t people scanning my QR codes?

Unlike asian markets, where gadget-hungry consumers will willingly use something *“because it’s new”* even if it requires new inconvenience to do so, those closer to home need better convincing; we’re much more likely to want to do something ‘the old-fashioned way’, especially if that allows us to remain inconspicuous in our actions.

The fact is, you are probably using your QR code wrong. You must consider if the audience you are targeting is even aware of QR codes and if they’re likely to use them. If you’re advertising coach trips to flower shows for the over 70s, for example, then hoping they’ll engage with a QR code to make an online deposit with a credit card is a bit of a long shot.

Engagement with technology in the 18 - 34 age group is enormous and more or less equal between genders and for this reason they’re likely to have a compatible smartphone, since the market penetration of these devices is so high.

[![How not to use your QR : images from wtfqrcodes.com](/workspace/images/bad-qr-528129b1bdeff.jpg)](http://wtfqrcodes.com) There was a hyperlink here...

How not to use your QR : images from wtfqrcodes.com

Where are people scanning QR codes?

Let’s consider the thought process of our QR devotee (and hence also assume they have a compatible device) when they spy a QR code on your latest advert and what needs to happen for them to *actually* use it…

  • I am interested in more information about this product it relates to
  • I have spotted the QR code that will allow me to access this information
  • As an aware and regular user of QR codes, I know my phone is capable of scanning it
  • I have time to scan it
  • I need to remove my phone from my pocket
  • I need to open my scanning app
  • I need to point and shoot the QR
  • If it works, I can then enjoy the digital content I have found

That’s EIGHT things that need to happen and the fact is you can lose a potential user at any of these points. There’s physically quite a lot to do there, which requires TIME, and at least one hand free to do it. It’s quite amazing how many QR codes are used in completely inappropriate situations. We’ve seen signage aimed at drivers on busy roads where once the sign has been seen it’s already been driven past and it’d literally be illegal to attempt to scan the code, not to mention dangerous! Another common example is posters in busy public areas where it is inappropriate to stop your journey (i.e. a tube station where you’ll cause an obstruction or might be passing a display on an escalator). More over, the content likely to be accessed (usually a website) is not something one would want to loiter in a shop, supermarket or street corner in order to consume.

Whoever is scanning your QR code needs some time on their hands; at home is great, at work also good (unless your boss is looking over your shoulder) and public transport is pretty good (unless you’re on a tube or your train goes through a tunnel). If we also consider people who have a compatible device, but no suitable app installed, I would argue from personal experience that being at home is when they’re most likely to experiment with one.

In these ideal scenarios (work, home, public transport) we’re more than likely encountering the QR code in a magazine, newspaper or on product packaging (especially snack or takeaway foods). Research and logic agree that the most likely profile for your consumer is…

  • male or female
  • aged 18 - 34
  • at home reading a magazine or newspaper

If your advertisements are aimed at these people, maybe you’re not doing it wrong afterall.

What should I link my QR code to?

Another QR mine-field! Although QR codes can contain all sorts of information (telephone numbers, pre-composed text messages, vCard details and geo-location co-ordinates), most marketing campaigns will probably be linking to a web page.

Are you responsive?

The device opening the web page will be the device that scanned the QR code and since it’s extraordinarily unlikely somebody used their laptop or desktop computer, you’d better be sure your website is useable on a small mobile device! If you don’t have a responsive or mobile website, don’t fret; you can sidestep this problem by linking to your business page on another, already mobile compatible service, such as Facebook or Twitter.

Use QRs to link to long URLs

It’s probably not worth bothering linking to short, easy to remember URLs. If you think back to the seven steps we identified for the QR devotee, it’s less inconvenience to most people to open the browser and type any short url, i.e. *“http://www.makermet.com”*. QR codes come into their own when passing much longer URLs i.e. the link to this article *“http://www.makermet.com/blog/why-your-qr-code-is-not-working/”*. There’s a brilliant example of this here.

Provide FRESH, EXTRA content

Don’t duplicate content! If an advert has elicited interest enough to follow a QR code, nobody needs to waste time reading it again in order to access additional exciting content! Research by a teen magazine found the its users were most interested in discount coupons and prize draws, which is no surprise; people love free stuff, and this is ideal for inclusion in advertising.

In printed editorial content, you can provide the QR as a quick way of accessing relevant augmented, multimedia content; imagine reading a review of a film in a newspaper and then quickly being able to access the actual trailer of that movie on your smartphone.

Be inventive

There have been some examples recently of food packaging that’s used QR codes to provide additional and relevant information. One of the most note-worthy is that of McDonald’s recently re-designed takeaway packaging that drops the nutritional information in favour of a QR used to access it online. It’s a great idea, potentially, but its problems are multitude…

  • What if I have no smartphone and want to read nutritional information?
  • What if I have no data connection?
  • What if I need this information before I purchase my burger/shake/filth?

Perhaps they’d lend you a box to scan if you needed it before purchase, or maybe you can ask for a printed version, but it’s simply created a new problem instead of solving one.

What would be much more useful, at least to people actually cooking food, would be to include a QR on a tin of tomatoes, for example, that linked to recipes online or even instructional videos on cooking the recipes. These are even more ideal, since you’re probably using the product at home; QRs natural habitat.

How else might I use a QR code?

Makermet has worked on projects that had potential for more alternative uses of QR code technology.

Location QR codes

A multi-venue photography exhibition in Nottingham was expecting many visitors who were unfamiliar with the city. The organisers were concerned that their visitors might have difficulty in locating the venues, spread in a wide area over the city centre.

In addition to providing a street map in the exhibition guide, Makermet felt that QR technology could be used by visitors to guide them to locations via GPS. It is possible to encode latitude and longitude co-ordinates into a QR code, that automatically opens in the browser of the scanning device (often a smartphone), which in turn gives the option to plot a walking (or driving) route from the users current position to the exhibition location.

Map with die-cut and QR codes - Proof of concept by Makermet

The printed map itself still had to be functional without access to a QR scanning device and it was a wish of the organisers to list the various exhibitors at each location, along with location address. Rather than squeeze this onto a single page, we devised a die-cut system of three pages that used an onion-skin concept to show the map on the top layer, QR codes and addresses on the next and location number (visible through die cut holes on all pages) with exhibitor lists on the final page. The die cut holes also fit in with the wider, consistent brand concept for the rest of the exhibition.

Pre-composed SMS message QRs

In another scenario, an annual bar and nightclub awards event who regularly engaged Makermet in the design of event collateral was looking to improve awareness of their awards and the level of public participation. For the event, nearly all the categories were awarded at a lavish ceremony following a public vote, made via the event website. All venues that registered for the awards were supplied with “vote for us!” advertisement posters and Makermet suggested that QR codes could be used to promote the event as well as take votes.

The proposed system was to encode a precomposed text message within a QR code that held the following data...

  • Destination telephone number (actually an SMS gateway service)
  • Venue name or code number
  • Registration of a vote
  • Senders telephone number
  • Bar awards “thank you for voting!” message and ceremony ticket booking

When a visitor to a venue scanned the code, the text message would appear composed on their phone and they’d be asked to send it. Once sent, the SMS gateway interpreted the message contents and registered a vote for the venue on a database, checking that the sender had not already voted for the venue. Following send, it was hoped the sender might visit the bar awards website for further information, or to cast further votes in other categories.

One of the benefits of this system was that terms and conditions indicated that senders phone numbers could be collected and then contacted with an offer of exclusively discounted tickets for the final award ceremony.

How can my business benefit from QR code users?

With QR codes, it’s now possible to gather data from people looking at your adverts or reading your editorial. If you’re giving away discount coupons or running a prize draw, you’d be mad not to collect their email address and ask their permission to be added to your mailing list. If your advert lands them on a shopping site, with a fresh discount coupon, you might even be lucky enough to convert them to an instant sale.

If someone is engaging with your printed editorial enough to seek out more information online, you can probably suggest other content that might interest them, content that is perhaps connected to advertising affiliate networks.

Set up your links so that you can track them, either by including your own tracking variable in the url (such as *http://www.makermet.com/?qr=nov13promo*) or via a tracking service such as bit.ly. You should also have a different tracking code for each instance of the QR code, or each publication or location it is featured. This will allow you to measure the actual response to your campaign and then, should you decide to repeat it, fine tune it for even better results by examining what your users did AFTER they’d landed on your content. Consider the following…

  • which QR code location was most successful?
  • have they visited your site before?
  • did they visit more pages in your site?
  • did they make any purchases after landing on your site?
  • did they share their actions or any content on social media? if so, which?

Live happily ever after in Q-topia...almost.

With enough campaigns using QR technology successfully, UK consumers should realise their value and usage statistics should begin to catch up with those abroad. After the younger demographic who are traditionally quicker on the uptake of new technology become familiar with it, its use should also spread amongst the harder-to-convince, older consumer groups.

QR codes are not magic. They will not transform your campaigns or your business, but they’re a great addition to the marketing toolbox when you use them effectively and follow the basic rules we’ve explored…

  • Consider who your advert appeals to and whether they’re likely to use a QR code
  • Consider where this person is and what they are doing when they encounter it. Would you want to scan it in the same scenario?
  • Don’t bother with a QR code for short URLs
  • Track each QR code you use in your campaign and make use of the data you gather
  • Make sure your QR code links to useful content, at a time it is useful
  • Make sure the content is compatible with the device that is likely to have scanned it
  • If you don't have a responsive site, link to your profile on a service that does (i.e. Facebook)
  • Think about what you want to do with your traffic after they land on your content
  • Examine what happened with your QR campaign and use it to improve (or perhaps even scrap!) the next

Unfortunately, as designers we will never get over the fact that they’re just ugly! There are ways of trying to make your code prettier yet still scan; try rounding the sharp edges, removing sections of the pixels and replacing with logos or changing the colours.

For a project relating to primary education, Makermet spent hours carefully cutting strips and tissue paper and gluing to board to form a QR code with a child-like feel

If you are using them it's best to keep them away from your carefully designed brochure covers where they'll stick out like a sore, mangled and gangrenous thumb. Use them sparingly and tuck them away in your printed media where they can offer something really useful to the reader.

Good Luck! Alex Traska, Makermet Creative

About the author


Alex Traska

Founder / Creative Director

Alex's works with clients as brand consultant and strategist, and with the in-house team and a large network of collaborators as creative director and art director.

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