Marketers must do better than simply slap a QR code on ads

The QR code has been a useful tool, but often poorly implemented and frustrating for users. Where is its more intuitive and compelling successor?

Sometimes, I feel sorry for the QR code. Not often, admittedly; just whenever it gets a kicking from the seen-it-done-it crowd who have found another example of one that's not been well thought-through, and rip into it as if it's the spawn of Satan himself.

It's nowhere near perfect, but then, it was never meant to be. The QR code is a bit like Coldplay; it was just meant to fill a gap until something better came along, but became inexplicably huge and now, seemingly, won't go away.

Industrial foundations

QR Codes were developed for the car industry to track vehicles moving through the manufacture process. The useful thing about the codes was that they were two-dimensional; they can be read horizontally or vertically, unlike bar codes, which must line up to a reader in a particular way. So the information about which car was there could be quite easily read at whichever angle the car was positioned.

With the rise of the smartphone, suddenly consumers had a machine with them at all times that could read QR codes. The logic followed that, if people can read these things with phones, we should put them on our things. As is commonplace in marketing, the consumer's ability to theoretically do something was mistaken for 'they will undoubtedly actually do this'.

Taking the machinery out

Many a marketer has looked at the response rates from a QR code campaign and wondered why the decimal place is a couple of places further to the left than they were expecting.

But fear not, better things will come along. Have a read of this blog post by Ian Ozsvald, co-founder of artificial-intelligence and data-mining API StrongStream.

He talks about a project it has been developing in collaboration with Kasabi for Kew Gardens, where instead of QR codes, the phone just recognises text of the Latin plant name on a label, and tells you more about it.

It means that there's no need to plaster Kew in the strange visual language of machines, and after all, the last thing anyone wants is for Kew to feel like an automotive factory.

The sooner QR codes make way for technology like this, the better; like a three-year-old child, we'll be able to simply point our 'digital finger' at things and ask: 'What's that?'



If you really, really must use a QR code ...

  1. Make it point somewhere special. Has Bean Coffee attaches QR codes to specific beans it sells if it has a video related to that variety. If it doesn't have something special to point you to, there's no QR code.
  2. Don't make it 'this or nothing'. Macy's Backstage Pass app work is a great example of using QR codes, but surrounding them with options such as text and URLs. Don't try to force everyone down the QR rabbit hole.
  3. Make it mean something in context. Think about the context in which people will use the codes. Transport for London ran a poster warning people not to brandish smartphones on the Tube ... yes, it had a QR code on the bottom.

John V Willshire is the founder of Smithery, an innovation works for marketing and product development. Follow him on Twitter @willsh or at


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