5 Reasons Why QR Codes Will Fail

As a follow up to Howard’s post a few months ago, Why Foursquare and Gowalla Campus Tours Will Fail, I want to talk briefly about QR codes. These are just some quick thoughts that I’ve had on my mind, and after I ran across Likify today and the news last week that bit.ly now offers QR codes it brought me back to the same thought… we’re not there… yet.

I like QR Codes. I want them to work. When I pitched an idea to a client in April ’09, I was very excited about the possibilities. When I saw them in action overseas in early-mid ’09, it was great. But there are some barriers that still exist. And if they remain, QR codes will fail.

(If you aren’t up to date on what a QR code is/does, start here and then come back.)

5 Reasons Why QR Codes Will Fail

1. Until every single phone on the market knows what to do with a photo of the QR code from the built-in camera, usage will remain low. The step of downloading an app to take a photo is one step too many.

2. Until the options filter down (or the app/camera processes any type), we’re in the Beta/VHS or BluRay/HD-DVD war. MS codes, QR Codes, BeeTag, JagTag, Datamatrix, the list goes on. Simplification will happen, and the strong will survive. When this happens, adoption will increase in the early and late majority.

3. What’s In It For Me? (Taking a photo of the QR code above will let you ‘like’ our Facebook Page… so what? WIIFM?) What happens when they DO actually use it? In the above QR code, you become a fan on Facebook. That’s it. Nothing extra. You could have also done that by going directly to our page, or by texting like bluefuego to 32665, or by clicking the like button on the box over to the right of this blog post. It’s another vehicle, but not always the best one. QR can be in the mix, but it can’t be the only piece.

4. Long term context. This is similar to WIIFM, but on a larger scale. My ‘Deliver’ magazine has one on the cover this month. Esquire did that a few months ago too. Are you just putting it on print one-time because it’s the cool thing to do, or do you have long-term goals that keep these in front of your audience?

5. Technology that’s cool or useful doesn’t always make the cut, unfortunately. I keep a brand new, unopened CueCat in my desk drawer as a constant reminder of this.

From Wikipedia: “The CueCat was a cat-shaped handheld barcode reader developed in the late 1990s by the now-defunct Digital Convergence Corporation, which connected to computers using the PS/2 keyboard port and later and less commonly, USB. The CueCat enabled a user to open a link to an Internet URL by scanning a barcode — called a “cue” by Digital Convergence — appearing in an article or catalog or on some other printed matter. In this way a user could be directed to a web page containing related information without having to enter a URL.

Sound familiar? (Oh, and if you find a computer with a PS/2 jack, I’d love to scan some barcodes with you sometime.)

CueCat Fail!

What do you think?

I spoke with one school at a recent conference who is using QR codes, after I mentioned them in a presentation in conjunction with a slide that said “technology accelerates innovation… should you accelerate with it?” They said they’ve tried QR codes, but have had no response. Literally, zero. Thousands of alumni have received magazines, postcards, letters, etc and not a single person has taken the time to scan a QR code yet.

It all comes down to the need for another app, in my opinion. Remove that barrier, and QR codes become useful. Sure, I might have a reader on my phone, but does my audience?

Let me know your thoughts!

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  1. THANK YOU. I was saying this a bunch at #heweb10 – and a few were with me. I guess some of us find it hard to separate what we think is cool or nifty from what will attract mainstream adoption.

  2. Some really good points. I think the issue you are touching on actually goes deeper than just QR codes. The question is, is it worth it to embrace an emerging technology at a time when – due to technological and user limitations – you can only, at best, engage the tiniest fraction of your audience? How you answer that question should be the deciding factor in how you approach many new tech issues with low-to-no RIO, like QR codes, location-based services or augmented reality.

    While getting into QR codes now is likely to give you no tangible return whatsoever, waiting for the market to define a clear leader and standard isn’t always the best route either. My personal opinion would be, get into these technologies now if you have the time and drive to stay ahead of the curve, but don’t expect your audience to necessarily give a damn.

  3. I can go either way on this. However, I’ll take counterpoint.

    QR codes have a HUGE advantage over the CueCat – They require no hardware outside of your phone. CueCats required you to go to Rat Shack and get one, free or not. You can download an app from anywhere. It’d also be a short jump to build it into base phone features. As I understand it, some Android phones already are. The barriers between QR and CueCat code usage are not really similar enough for an apples to apples comparison.

    QR codes have almost no cost with respect to putting them into things. I think we’ll try them in our next alumni magazine, just to see. What’s the overhead? A couple square inches of space. Nothing ventured nothing gained. But you also have to educate people at the same time so they know what they are and how to use them. Like anything, you have to add value to the side channel if you want it to be used.

    They have also proven their worth in Japan, where they are widely used. Japan isn’t the US, sure, but things tend to take longer here anyway. They were developed 16 years ago, they haven’t gone away yet. They have no license and are an ISO standard. Something CueCat barcodes weren’t. I’m actually starting to become rather fond of them, the more that I see them. The problem is more in companies inability to use them effectively. The tool and the concepts are fundamentally sound.

  4. I think this is a question where we need to look at the demographics to sort things out. You mention that a school you recently spoke with has placed a QR code on printed materials sent to alumni, and saw no response. Well, that might just be the wrong demographic.

    If you think about a school’s overall alumni base, only a small percentage of them are in the young “digital natives” category. I wonder what the response rate would have been if the viewbook, admission brochures and recruitment postcards had QR codes on them? Would that tell a different story?

    What about doing further research by placing recipient-specific codes on some mailings? Then you know exactly who is using the technology, and over time you may be able to piece together enough demographic data to see where it’s worth the effort to put the codes, and where it isn’t.

  5. You make some great points to keep in mind. I agree in not pursuing technology for technology’s sake, but I think QR codes, in some purposeful cases, can be a low risk, low cost experiment into bridging the divide between the virtual and real worlds, e.g. slapping a QR code sticker on a map display around campus that directs people to a mobile web map. The display and mobile map exist anyway. The sticker costs $0 and about a half hour of time.

    QR codes may come and go, but I do think that new ways of hyperlinking the physical world around us will continue to emerge, and I am interested in pursuing low-cost ways of building familiarity/curiosity with the concept among our audiences.

  6. Great post, although I think the eventual failure of QR codes depends on how you use them.

    If you’re hanging your hat on QR codes and expect them to be the digital savior of all things new and cool, forget it. They’ve already failed. But if they’re a part of an overall digital strategy used to enhance an already-rich experience, they can be a very useful tool — most like any other digital medium, I guess.

    Anyway, thanks again for the thought-provoking post.

  7. @JD – The university I spoke of is actually an extremely tech-focused school. :) I’ll withhold their name as to not embarrass them OR their alumni base though, LOL!

  8. I tend to agree with all the comments made. We’re just all looking at this from different angles. It’s true, that QR codes will probably go the way of the DoDo here in the US. In countries like Japan, QR codes are everywhere, but that is due to the fact that the ability to read them is in the vast majority of phones in that market. Here, the smartphone market is growing, but still not universally adopted. Brad is right in that it will take phone manufacturers making the ability to read QR codes inherent in their cameras, not requiring an additional app download.

    But I think I agree with @fienen and @georgy that it’s a low/no cost experiment. But I don’t think Brad was saying it’s not worth experimenting on your audience, just that you can’t invest in this as “the wave of the future.”

    We focus too often on the tools we use rather on the intent behind them. If the intent of using QR codes is to use QR codes, then you’re doing it wrong. If the intent is to try and find the most effective, innovative and creative ways to reach your audience, then you’re doing it right.

  9. I don’t think comparing CueCat to QR is fair for the reason the talented Mr. Fienen gave — there’s no hardware lock-in. Also, a QR code has a wide range of sizes, up to billboard size, vs the little bar codes of the CueCat.

    As for downloading the software, AT&T is going to start offering it on their phones (including the iPhone) soon, and now that RedLaser has added QR support, there’s now a not-sucky iPhone app. Will it require install? Yeah, but that was the same barrier to entry for Flash all those years ago.

    And yet, I’m in between on QR codes. I can see where they could be beneficial. I can see where they’re the new CueCat. In the US, uptake has been slow, while in Japan it’s been higher (though maybe not ubiquitous yet).

    I’m going to try experimenting with them with our convention booth — we’re going to give them a list of links with QR codes next to them. My over/under on total number of QR uses is 3, and I would bet the under. But, who knows. The total cost to me is 5 minutes of my time. In fact, I spent far longer explaining the experiment to my superiors than I did actually creating the codes. It’s low-risk, low-reward development that can tell me a lot about whether there could be uptake.

  10. I like the discussion, I’m with Billyadams. However has anyone noticed that QR codes are in BestBuy on every product including universal remotes? They are appearing in sales papers as well. I don’t think that they are the be all end all but neither is social media. They are both compliments to whatever your current strategy is. If you think Facebook replaces all of your traditional methods of reruitment you are sadly mistaken.

    To the general public with smartphones I think they believe the codes are cute and/or cool (cute and cool sell). To us it’s a matter of being innovative. Use them in scavenger hunts on campus (retention). As a way to conduct an oncampus tour during hours they aren’t available (admiissions). They can link to text, websites, email addresses, etc. People download apps because their friends tell them too. Who found Gowalla or Foursquare on their own? I’m not going to lie, I’m sure I read about them in a blog. That blogger probably heard about them from someone else….

    Brad, where is my shirt?

  11. The author makes some good points, but I believe that QR codes will survive AND thrive. In fact, I think they will become an almost universally adopted modality. At the present, I think that most people view QR codes as an information delivery resource, ala the internet in the early ’90s. Once the ability to use them in a more interactive manner is developed, usage will explode. Smartphones are quickly becoming the norm, and once the issues of standardization is sorted out, then you’ll see the readers installed on phones so that downloading is not necessary. I think the concept is here to stay for a while, and the smart organizations will work hard on how to REALLY use them rather than just relying on them as high-tech eye candy.

  12. Well let’s look at the numbers here. This study – http://bit.ly/fa9d2m states that 42 percent of mobile users have a smart phone. That study was conducted in December of 2009. Since then we’ve seen the smart phone market grow quickly. In this Tech Crunch article from Dec. 3 of this year – http://tcrn.ch/fIrMuK – Leena Rao writes;

    “The data, which measured smartphone usage from July until October of this year, showed that 60.7 million people in the U.S. owned smartphones during period, up 14 percent from the preceding three month period. comScore says that the 1 out of every 4 mobile subscribers are using a smartphone.”

    What does this say? The market is there. Yes the “trouble” of opening an app to scan the QR code still exists but we (higher ed web types) and millions of other people are still opening foursquare or Gowalla to check-in. I’m probably the worst of this bunch when it comes to remembering to check in. But I have to remember to. There’s nothing at the location I’m visiting to remind me to check in.

    However, QR is visible and when I see a QR that I’m interested in I’ll expend the energy to open that app and scan the code. I do it because I’m interested in more information. All the uses I’m seeing for QR is being used as an enhancement, not the meat and potatoes of an advertisement or whatever but for more. So if I’m not interested in the initial print, then I won’t scan. Nothing expended, nothing lost.

    In the iphone app store the number of QR readers being offered is growing. I check back every once in a while to see if there’s a new, easier one to use (I recommend qrab and mobiletag). There will come a time very soon when the camera on a phone will, by default, be able to automatically recognize QR and process it without the effort to open an app to interact. Kind of like iphotos faces feature.

    Plus with QR, you can now add your little touch to the code (colors, logos, shapes of the code). This is an added dimension that makes QR more attractable to me to use.

    So I agree with @fienen, nothing ventured, nothing gained and there’s really very little to venture here with the possibility of a very nice return in the end.

    I may be way off base but that’s my $.02 worth.

  13. I am an experienced techie who works in education and has kind of a Luddite/Anti-Surveillance streak, so I have refused to invest in a smartphone. I have a Rumor2 (web-capable but not used, camera, mp3 player, qwerty slide-out keyboard). The cost of using the web on my phone is too high, the camera is too low quality, and mp3 player interface is poor at best. So, to me, it’s just a phone with a nice keyboard.

    But then again, I am on the cusp. I’m 28 years old and when I was entering undergraduate studies, Napster was just beginning to peak and while almost everyone in the dorms had a cell phone, they were bulky and used black-on-green LCDs (Nokia 3390, and 5165). I never liked the phone because I never liked being “leashed”. I have the joy of tech, but I don’t buy into the social pressure to be constantly connected. (Give me a cellphone/SMSer/camera, a tablet, and a desktop PC and I’m happy!)

    Today, however, I’m seeing children (8 years old up) with their own iPhones. Data plans, while still quite expensive, are ubiquitous and all but expected with a purchase. I don’t like it, but smartphones and peoples’ constant connection is here to stay (barring any massively detrimental event). So why not experiment with it?

    I’m exploring ways to make self-guided tours at my university. I’m looking at options for self-implementation and third-party help, audio-only by cell vs. QR+web content vs. GPS-guiding vs. others. So far, it’s proving to be most cost-effective to create mobile-friendly sites with integrated audio and video options, triggered by QR scans. So far.

    PS- The most important part is looking up peoples’ criticisms of self-guided tours and ones that have failed outright. Much to be learned there.

  14. [...] Limited audience. In order to get any clicks from your QR code, your audience has to filter through a funnel to get to that point. First, they need a smartphone, then they need to download an app that will read QR codes. Then they need to know what to do with a QR code, open the app and scan the code. There’s a barrier to entry when it comes to QR codes. This is Brad Ward’s No. 1 reason why QR codes will fail. [...]

  15. I agree with you Georgy. The QR codes like any other technologies are just a tool. The meaningful use comes from you, how you implement them. I found them useful when adding to a calendar of event web page and I can easily transfer the event to my mobile calendar (I also learned how to utilize my mobile calendars, as well as icalendar on my Mac.) I scan the code, add event on my mobile, and it syncs with all my other mobile and desktop calendars. I think that is cool. I think codes are easy to create and implement and free. Another great way of using them is adding them to printed text books to make them multimedia based. Since a code is a link to a web resource (audio, video, picutre) copyright is not an issue. I think QR codes have great potentials in education. Educating users is key.
    A problem I see why QR codes might not become main stream is the media. I think media has a great role in forming opinions and advertising new technologies for mass adaption. TV may not have a big benefit (though they can display codes on screen and leave it there for a few minutes for scanning), for radio it is definitely useless, print media may use it a little, but they are either going digital or they do not want to send their readers to online, they already have difficulties keeping readers for printed media.
    My 2 cents worth. Ilona

  16. QR codes are going to be a relic of the past and we will laugh (in hindsight) the fact that people ever thought they would take off. I agree with Brad’s points, but I think the biggest problem is that they are not aesthetically pleasing. The world doesn’t always go the way of the early adopters and in this case the QR train will end in a few years.

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