Scanning the future: Mobile marketing beyond QR codes

  • Opinion
  • January 22, 2014
  • Nick Butler
Scanning the future: Mobile marketing beyond QR codes

QR codes are doing half the job of connecting marketers with consumers but there are alternatives that may turn out to be the complete package.

Quick response codes are, for those who came in late, those blocky 2D barcodes you scan to trigger a response using your mobile device.

The power of QR codes is their ability to give consumers compelling, context-specific content on their mobile. You know what they’re doing when they scan your code – they’re looking at whatever collateral you printed the thing on – so you design your website or app to suit.

A code on a poster might link to a mobile coupon offer with a Google map using the phone’s GPS to give directions to the nearest participating retailer. QR codes’ origins in Japan’s highly-automated automotive industry explain their main disadvantage.

They're designed to be read by machines, their target market is computers not consumers. The result is an aesthetic artefact that only a motherboard could love. This causes two problems: the codes can detract from an otherwise elegant layout and, looking like chessboards designed by an OCD robot, the codes don’t seem fit for human consumption. They cry out 'for office use only'.

Karen Maurice-O'Leary, creative director at Starseed, says the codes are a visual jolt in any layout. “I have seen a lot of creative effort to add more aesthetic appeal but no matter how hard you try they're still going to look like a very pixelated image under a magnifying glass.”

Adam Thompson, an art director at DDB, says QR codes often don’t fit with the tone of an ad. “If you’ve got a beautifully shot image, the last thing you want to add is a black and white graphic device from the future. Whenever asked to put one on, I usually sigh.”

It’s hard to get a clear picture of how many consumers actually scan QR codes. Forrester’s Consumer Technographics Survey in late 2012 reported that fewer than one in 10 adults with mobile phones had used QR codes in the past month (eight percent in the US, six percent in the EU).

In contrast, Adobe’s 2012 Mobile Consumer Survey recorded more than a third of mobile users saying they had scanned a QR code in the previous three months; 38 percent of young users and 40 percent of middle aged users. (The difference is at least partly down to Forrester only counting phones, not tablets, as well as the shorter timeframe.)

These numbers may have peaked, as Adobe’s 2013 survey has QR use rates of 37 percent for the young and 32 percent for the middle aged. Even if uptake among mobile users has stalled, the total number of users could still grow as mobile use grows and Google’s Our Mobile Planet survey shows that New Zealand smartphone penetration jumped from 44 percent in 2012 to 54 percent in 2013.

Uptake hasn’t been helped by some flaky executions. There’s a whole website devoted to QR code fails, spelling out what not to do.

They include using QR codes:

on unscannable objects (vehicles, flags, the backsides of beach volleyballers )
in unscannable locations (high up on billboards and buildings) 
on unscannable objects in unscannable locations (a banner towed behind an aeroplane )
in pointless locations (on websites, where a link or button makes a bit more sense)
to provide content that isn’t useful (a shopping catalogue with a code that links to a PDF of the same catalogue )
linking to websites not optimised for mobiles (sites built in Flash that won’t work on iPhones)
linking to content that ignores context (a code on a restaurant menu that links to a Google map showing the location of the restaurant you’re sitting in).

Alternatives:

Here are some of the scan-for-response options available.

Digimarc  Discover 

This app reads imperceptible digital watermarks embedded in images (or audio files).

Pro:

It’s invisible so there’s no need to compromise your design.
The app also reads 1D and 2D barcodes.
You can embed watermarks in your own images online.
The platform could reach critical mass as it’s been adopted by brands like Ford and Whirlpool and publications including Cosmopolitan and Sports Illustrated.

Con:

You need to design your own clear call to scan.
User ratings in the Google Play apps store for Android suggest people find it superb or sucky but little in between.

Blippar  

Media owners and brands can sign up to Blippar and submit images to a catalogue of Blipps that can be scanned by the app.

Pro:

It’s invisible (though you get a ready-made call to scan in the shape of the Blippar icon). 
You’re joining some serious content providers, including Nestle, Unilever and Samsung.

Con:

With a Google Play user rating of just 2.6 (at the time of writing) it looks as if it has some usability issues.
Only partners can create Blipps .

SnapTag

With Snaptag you get to wrap the client’s logo in a SnapTag code ring, a circle with gaps encoding the smart device response.

Pro:

Visually they are more discreet than QR codes. 
SnapTags work for any phone with a camera – feature phones can txt a photo of the SnapCode. 

Con:

This is another app with a Google Play rating (2.7) that suggests it needs to be more robust.

Google Goggles

Not to be confused with Google Glass (bastard offspring of spectacles, spycam and smart phone), Goggles is an image recognition search app which compares the photo snapped by your device with an index of images (it can also scan barcodes and recognise and translate text).

Pro:

Its user ratings show it’s well liked and well used, with an iTunes score of 4.5 and 234,000 reviews across all versions and a Google Play score of 4.2 based on 137,000 reviews.

Con:

Whether it works for your client’s image assets depends on whether they’re in Google’s index and it takes you to search results not a specific web page or app.

Microsoft Tag

Tag is a proprietary Microsoft QR code equivalent.

Pro:

They store more data in a smaller space than QR codes.

Con:

They only work on Microsoft devices. Microsoft’s tiny slice of the mobile market restricted uptake, perhaps why the company announced in late August that they will stop supporting them in 2015.

​The Future

The future technology that marketers use to connect consumers with compelling context-dependent mobile experiences may not even rely on the device’s camera. Touchcode , for example, uses invisible ink that interacts with touch screens, and probably the biggest buzz these days is around near field communication, a short range radio technology that, among many potential uses, allows NFC-enabled stickers or tags to trigger the same smartphone interactions that QR codes do now.

When assessing these and future options, agencies should be looking for a technology that is reliable, standardised , measurable, available on devices out of the box and easy to integrate into executions across a range of media. If it’s easy and rewarding for consumers to use, it should be rewarding for you and your clients as well.

Nick Butler left his job as New Zealand Police’s Online Channels Manager at the end of December to become a fulltime writer. He’s not sure it was such a good idea.

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