QR Codes Have the Beer Can Problem

There continues to be a steady buzz about QR codes, those bar code-looking thingys that can be scanned by a smart phone to link you to added content, a website or perhaps even a coupon at the point of purchase. Here’s the Wikipedia definition.

I’m not an expert in QR codes — or anything for that matter — but I’ve been around long enough to have a good idea if something is going to work or not.  I’m thinking the buzz on QR codes may be short-lived — and I’d like to explain why by telling you a short story about a beer can.

One of my most interesting jobs was global marketing director for aluminum packaging products (like beverage cans).  While this may sound mundane, the opportunity to nurture $2.5 billion in sales with some of the world’s biggest brands was a lot of fun!

On a customer trip, I noticed the flight attendant had a lanyard around her neck with a strange plastic device on the end. The device served as a fulcrum that she used under the tabs to open each can.  I asked her why she just didn’t open the pop-tops with her fingers and she pointed to her well-manicured nails.

I suddenly realized that our humble package had a big problem. A significant part of the population — people with manicured nails — needed a secondary device to open the package. We were vulnerable!  Any competing package that did not require a secondary “opener” (like plastic bottles) would be preferred by these consumers!

This revelation led to an R&D project aimed at an easier-opening lid which included a depressed “well” under the tab to protect well-groomed nails.

QR codes are vulnerable in the same way — you need an “opener” to get to the goods. Consumers will resist this, especially if there is an alternative — and there is.

Last summer I was in Bordeaux and noticed they had QR code posters everywhere to provide information on city events. I was a tourist with money to spend — their target market — but I couldn’t use the system.  Problem 1: The instructions were in French.  Problem 2: You had to download special software to access the information.  Problem 3: As an international visitor, I would have to access expensive roaming charges just to get the code.

The “opener” in this case was a significant obstacle.  If the city went to the trouble of creating posters, why not put up one up that simply had the information people needed? Why make me WORK for it?

Now suppose such a helpful poster existed … you would still have the problem of a language barrier, right? The problem could easily be solved for anybody that had a free smartphone app called WordLens. This technology is part of a swelling trend called augmented reality that I think will leap-frog the QR code innovation.

In this example, by simply holding the phone in front of the foreign language, you get an instantaneous translation and access to the information when you need it, where you need it. No instructions. No dependence on an Internet connection. No expenditure in time or expense.  It’s just an extraordinarily user-friendly experience.

I don’t think you can question the power of the idea behind QR Codes but I have reservations about customer adoption.  I believe augmented reality is one of the seminal technologies of 2011 and a development that could obsolete QR codes in many cases.  Imagine holding your phone up in front of a city street and having discounts, movie times, even names of nearby friends overlayed on top of the buildings?  Or using the phone to scan a display of shirts to immediately find your size, discounts, and matching pants and accessories?

There will probably be legitimate uses for QR codes, especially for industrial applications and logistics tracking, but I believe augmented reality may leap-frog the innovation in the consumer arena before it leaves the gate.  This is just one opinion and I’m sincerely open for debate here — what’s your take on it?

Illustration: AdamThompson

All posts

  • Mark – Valuable thoughts, as always. Some reports from the field:

    – QR codes are now the hottest mobile sharing method in our practice.
    – QR codes are far more accessible for consumers than Augmented Reality. AR is great and it’s on our horizon in the US. Use of AR is miniscule today while…
    – Scanning of 1D and 2D (QR) codes grew 1,600% in 2010.
    – More and more smartphones are equipped with scanning software “out of the box,” making scanning codes very low effort.
    – Shrewd marketers are combining QR with additional techniques to reach and engage consumers. Check out what a cutting-edge Minneapolis restaurant is doing, presenting an on-going story through QR that changes as frequently as daily:

    Savvy marketers will learn that QR is the sizzle; social is the steak. Bring them in through any digital channel (including QR). Keep them coming back with compelling content and social conversation.
    Interested in hearing others’ perspectives! – Lisa

  • Fascinating post. I think that QR codes can work with augmented reality apps as well as readers.

    I think that people will become educated to use QR readers, as they have in Korea and Japan. Seems strange now, but wait until everyone has a smart phone.

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention QR codes and the beer can problem -- Topsy.com()

  • Hottest mobile sharing device … what is an example of another mobile sharing device? Maybe I’m thinking about other terms.

    I was having a conversation with a very smart marketer the other day and I observed that in the busy restaurant we were in, i doubted if a single person even knew what a QR code is. So while the adoption is rapid, the base is very small (near zero).

    There are definitely interesting plays here, but don;t you think AR is going to swarm this thing? It’s going to mash up all the social platforms.

    Lisa, I am so happy to have your expert insight here. Tell us more!

  • Yes, agree that critical mass is definitely building for smart phones. It’s fun to think about it isn’t it? Much appreciated, sir.

  • By the end of this year 50%+ of US phones will be smart. The word’s a changin’ real fast.

    YOu blog has certainly made me thing about the intersection of QR code readers and AR apps.

  • Mark – It’s always tricky predicting when / how tipping points are going to occur. I was extremely skeptical about QR codes one year ago (as you are), and have been surprised at the uptake. The same appears to be true of growth in smartphone ownership:

    – In 2010 Nielsen predicted the US would hit 50% smartphone ownership (currently 31%) by third quarter 2011. I thought that was very optimistic. However comScore is now projecting the same growth. With QR scanning shipping on more and more devices, this will also accelerate QR code scanning.

    – Smartphone adoption will obviously grow when they are cheaper. Vizio (the folks who brought us cheap HD TVs) is now manufacturing Android smartphones which will be in stores this summer.

    – I personally love AR (we’re developing an integration of our platform with a top 20 Layar developer in Australia), but I think it will be at least 1 – 2 years before it gains momentum in the US.

    – QR is a huge opportunity for social media marketers and consultants. The client I cited in my original post is giving consumers opportunities to interact with the brand on Facebook and Twitter once they scan the code. They also post the same content on Facebook and Twitter, getting the content out to non-QR-code-scanners. (Shameless promotion: this dual sharing is easy and fast with our platform.)

    Every social marketer should be thrilled about the new ways to engage consumers via mobile, whether you choose QR codes, text messaging, social-on-mobile, or Augmented Reality. It’s all good! – Lisa

  • Thank you for another interesting post, Mark.

    I recently used QR codes in the marketing literature and signage for my company. The QR codes were there to take people to the site. However, unlike the example from Bordeaux you illustrated in your post, I used them alongside written versions of the URLs. The idea was to give the customers a choice, so that if they had a smartphone they could instantly access our website, and if not they could visit the site later.

    I’m in agreement with John Frankel and believe that QR codes will work with or site alongside augmented reality going forward. However, the way modern technology is taking off it’s hard to predict how things will develop in the years ahead.

  • whenimmobile.com

    Part of the power of QR is that you can leave all the changable dynamic info on the mobile-friendly website and leave only the static info on the hard medium – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ml0vzly5YUc&feature=player_embedded your point is interesting but it misses most of the power of QR.

  • John

    Sorry but you’ve utterly missed the whole point of QR codes. If you’re just going to show the message ‘Welcome to the Future’ or ‘Don’t forget to drink your Ovaltine’ then yes QR codes are just silly. But the whole point is that a QR code can communicate something complex and unwieldy easily. For instance, the QR code on my business card contains my entire contact information which some one can now easily put into their contact database without having to type in my info manually or hope that their software will scan the front of my card correctly. QR codes convey URLs to apps, dynamic content that I can change anytime, and much much more than marketing slogans. Yes, augmented reality is cool and has some marketing uses. But augmented reality and QR codes go way, way beyond your analysis here.

  • That is a great point regarding QR codes. The secondary device issue is a huge obstacle. Also, 9 times out of 10, these QR codes point you to a website. You know what else does a pretty good job of pointing you to a website? A domain-name. Just cuz you can do something it dont mean its a good idea.

  • whenimmobile.com

    Oh, so you like typing on your mobile device then? Typing errors are yet another unnecessary hoop to jump when trying to access content. The QR eliminates that step. It also has a hip factor if used properly and paired with images (see http://dl.dropbox.com/u/15395151/pgqr3.jpg and http://dl.dropbox.com/u/15395151/tm_sticker1.jpg for examples) and has powers we havent even figured out yet since it is so under-utilized in the western world. If you want to heckle why not stay in the music blogs?

  • whenimmobile.com

    (apologies for possible over-reaction Dino – no malice intended)

  • I think QrCodes are an amazing “tool” that a company can use to connect consumers to brands.

    Patrick Donnelly, http://www.QrArts.com

  • Thank for this great input Lisa.

  • Certainly amazing times and fun to think about how it will all come together. I’m quite excited by the creativity that will be unleashed. Thanks Gavin!

  • Respectfully, I did not question the power of QR, only ultimately how the information will be delivered. If the process is easy and consumers are conditioned to expect something excellent … not just something they could get off a website … It will succeed, whether it is AR or QR. Thanks for the comment and the link.

  • Do 10 Hail Marys and 5 Our Fathers and dont do it again lol

  • I’m not sure why you you think I missed the point of the power of QR codes. The ability to get complex information is great. I simply pointed out that there are hurdles to adoption. The technology is the easy part. Getting people to use it is hard.

    Using your business card example — At the university where I teach, we use an app called “bump.”. Simply by touching smart phones together, contact informations was transferred. There was a guy in the class that also had a QR code on his card. Nobody paid any attention to it because the bump app worked perfectly.

    The quality of the information in both cases was the same. But the WAY the information was delievered determined whether it is adopted. I’m notmquestioning the power. I’m pointing out a possible issue with utility.

    I hope that clarifies a bit? Thanks so much for your comment!

  • Anonymous

    QR codes are just too complicated for most people. You need to know what software to use to download and then scan the code. It’s too much hastle, it feels like too much hastle. I can’t see most non-technical people using this.

    My alternative is simple:


  • Well I’m glad you boys have kissed and made up.

    All good points. I do have a concern about the hip factor though. Sure that is a legitimate marketing tactic, but it also reinforces the possible short-term nature of the technology.

    Thanks very much for caring enough to comment.

  • Ummm … you work for a QR Code company I think? : ) What do you think about the customer adoption hurdle I mention? Your perspective would be valued. Thanks!

  • Like Lisa below, I was skeptical 12 months ago. No more. The momentum I’ve seen in the past 6 months has been crazy. We had a work outing last week and someone’s drink had an umbrella with a QR code on it. Of couse the whole table came over to check out the ‘content’ – which was much deeper than could ever have been printed on the umbrella.

    The QR code may not be THE technology that does this (although I personally think it will be), but something will bridge the divide between the physical and the online realms. There will be bad implementations of QR codes, but when done correctly, you engage the user by an order of magnitude.

  • Oh that is too funny. And actually, yes, I did have a guidebook that I carried everywhere. The reception was always perfect : ) Thanks for the fun comment Richard!

  • A drink umbrella with a QR code? That would be right up there with QR codes in fortune cookies. I think this reinforces the whole “gimmick” thing. I would be interested to know what deep content would come on a drink umbrella!

    When the world is covered in QR codes, who is going to care any more? They will become invisible. I appreciate your point, but I think it probably reinforces my argument that this is not a long-term platform. I could be wrong. Usually am : )

    We’ll have a drink over it a year from now and see what the QR codes say. Thanks for this cool example Jeremy.

  • Agreed. The drink example isn’t all that useful, but it does highlight traction.

    Something we’re working on here at GovDelivery probably illustrates ‘deeper’ content in a more relavent way.

    When government agencies print brochures, posters or forms, they do so in bulk and they do it early. Let’s say an agency is printing H1N1 brochures & posters for the upcoming flu season – which they are probably doing in July. Place the following QR code on the bottom of each one. When a citizen scans the QR code they are taken to the latest news and alerts, across ALL government agencies, around H1N1. Posters and brochures are important for awareness…but get deeper and more timely information THROUGH the QR code.

    See the this QR code for an example: http://bit.ly/eGqFal. Not optimized for mobile yet (USA.gov) but working on it. Will be fun to watch where this goes.

  • That’s an interesting example with the flu thing, but what would be the advantage of doing a QR code rather than posting a simple web address on the brochure that everybody could understand? I would guess 95% of the people in America wouldn’t know what to do with a QR Code if it punched them in the nose. And if you consider the elderly as being most vulnerable to H1N1, the government would just confuse a lot of people.

    I think as business professionals, marketers and communicators we need to put people’s fundamental needs ahead of the thrill of the technology.

    I appreciate the passion and knowledge you bring to the subject Jeremy and hope to hear more about your successes. Thanks for taking the time to engage on this!

  • Hi Mark

    I think I have missed your points maybe..

    Why is installing wordlens on your phone and pointing it at something more complex than installing qr reader and pointing it at something?
    Why is it so much harder to download bump to your smartphone than qr reader?

    One main point about the posters using QR codes is that you do not have to reprint posters because you want to update the information, another is the ability to hotlink into maps and more…

    I understand the argument that technology can be a hurdle for adoption. But not when you substitute with equally complicated technologies. Yes bump is great I use it, But I also have a qr code on my business card.

    I do not make money in anyway from qr codes btw 🙂



  • Hello,

    we believe that QR codes will make the connection between offline and online worlds easier. That’s why we created our QR code generator with social features. You can add all your info like Facebook profile or fan page, twitter, youtube, etc. and connect with others.


  • Ok, you’ve promoted your company. Now how about providing some meaningful input that addresses the issue I’ve raised here — hurdles to consumer adoption?

  • Here’s an interesting and encouraging development with the arrival of QR use. Many, if not most of, mobile web developers and strategists have been frustrated with the attention and advertising budgets given to apps.

    Here is a case where app and mobile web need to work together, and maintain the same level of excellence, in the user experience for the process to be successful.

    Integration of the capabilities of the entire device – camera, reader, web server, properly rendered content and functionality. Tools are there – what can we build?

  • I would only partially agree with you here. I think there is an issue with billboards only using QR codes without any sort of messaging or instruction in addition to the code. It really alienates the ones without “openers.” Though they’re growing in popularity, the majority of people aren’t going to instinctively download scanners on their smartphones yet.

    I do however think QR codes could have a bright future ahead of them if used properly. If used to supplement a traditional print ad message, they are effective. If a billboard or poster has a brand message that’s obvious that anyone can see, they could use a QR code to increase the interaction with those potential influencers who have barcode scanners or “openers.” If a code is the only message on an ad, then it’s not nearly as effective and doesn’t reach as wide of an audience as it could.

    I’ve also seen codes in Best Buy next to certain products. By tapping into those, I personally was able to see customer reviews on different products and make a more educated purchasing decision (and actually spent more $ on a product than I would have without the comparison…score 1 for Best Buy there).

  • In my world right now – B2B marketing, QR codes are only accelerating in popularity. We’re seeing them in more and more print ads, and I think that as a device in that environment, QR codes themselves are the opener for now. There are several reasons for this.

    • QR codes can make the ad interactive. Car companies are using them a lot. “We know this static picture of a car won’t rev your engines, but how about this video, right here?”

    • Measurability – ever since the “bingo” response cards went by the wayside, there has been immense pressure to find a way to measure, at least in part, whose eyes are surveying your ads. QR codes are a way to get a piece of that pie. We understand that not everyone will use the codes, but for anyone who does scan that code and go to a website – that’s one person measured that we couldn’t have captured a year ago.

    • More flexibility in message: I think if people use QR codes right, which is to say with intelligence, they have the capacity to convert print ads from a “talk at” tool to a “talk with” tool. Being able to peruse an ad and then dig deeper into product information without your computer could have pretty positive ramifications.

    Now of course, there are issues like the ones you mention – if you don’t have a bar code reader, you need to download one. If you’ve never seen a QR code before, you might not know what it is or how to use it. And if you don’t have a call to action with it, people might not see a point in going to the trouble.

    I’m very excited/interested to see what happens with this device in the next 6 months to a year.

  • Mark – Interesting post. Thanks for the heads up on WordLens. I hadn’t heard of that one before.

    I am no expert either, but I think context is the most important thing for a successful campaign using QR codes. If a person sees a random QR code on the street or as someone’s avatar in a blog comment for example, even if they know what QR codes are and have an app to scan and read them, they probably aren’t likely to do so. But if the QR code has context, say under the cap of a bottle of Snapple, or on your receipt to “unlock” special deals, or if your favorite band uses them to announce secret shows on their website, then I think you would find some success and adoption.

    I think the use of QR codes as a type of “scavenger hunt” is what we are seeing the most of currently, but the user needs to know the rules of the game before they decide to play.

  • Are QR Codes a perfect solution? – No
    Will QR Codes be replaced by some form of AR in the future? – Yes
    Are there bad implementations of QR Codes? – Yes
    Are there good implementations of QR Codes? – Yes
    Are QR Codes ubiquitous in Japan? – Yes
    Have QR Codes reached the tipping point in the US? – Yes
    Was King Canute able to stop the tide coming in? – No
    Did Nero fiddle while Rome burned? – Yes

  • You’ve hit on the key point here I think Jonathan. Capitalizing on the “cool” factor while maintaining an excellent, value-added user experience though an integrated approach. That’s the challenge. Well said!

  • I partially agree with you back : ) QR codes — or some other trigger — at the point of purchase could be valuable, as you say in the Best Buy example.

    But the use in ads — if QR codes proliferate, how useful will they be. There will have to be a powerful motivator — something free, something exceptional to cut through the clutter. Eventually the “cool” new thing aspect will die down. Maybe QR codes end up as gloried coupons? A mash-up with Foursquare or Groupon? I don’t know, but interesting discussion. Thanks for the thought-provoking comment!

  • This is really superb feedback Marjorie. You’ve basically written your next blog post : ) Great job!

  • I’m sure we will see some extraordinary uses that may even drive the adoption of the “openers.” That may be a key to success with this innovation: extreme value. Thanks for the insight!

  • Did Roger provide an entertaining and wise comment? Yes.

  • I guess usability is a personal point of view. In the Wordlens example, you don’t need to be directed to another site. It works across any communication platform, regardless if there is a trigger like a QR code or not, you don;t need Internet access, you don;t have to wait for any response and maybe the big one — you know you’re not going to be disappointed with the output. QR codes are kind of a crap shoot. You may not know what you’re getting into.

    i think we both agree usability is key. Thanks for chiming in today Andrew!

  • Mark, as always, great post.

  • Oh yeah…how about that 🙂 Verbosity does have its advantages … sometimes … 🙂

    Thanks for being my muse!

  • Mark, as always, great post! Ultimately, it’s about adoption, and I’d echo the comments of those here who have pointed to the rest of the world in this regard. Codes (QR and otherwise) are huge in other countries, and the young have no problem figuring them out.

    QR codes are great right now–best thing going–but AR will certainly replace them down the road. But at that point, the ubiquity of information will surpass “apps” or “sites” in general–near-field communications will mean that our devices will be in constant contact and interaction with the objects and locations around us, and we won’t even think about it anymore…we’ll just go about our augmented lives. I think you rightly point out that the opportunity for marketers is to make this process simple enough to work for most.

    Thanks as always!

  • Thanks Will!

  • Yes, basically the QR codes of the future will be air.

  • I completely agree about the app hurdle and it needs to be addressed – either with QR codes or with something else that doesn’t require an app. I really do not understand the app craze right now – who wants to download *another* app? I thought my phone was supposed to be smart, not potentially smart if I install all this crap.

    Regarding the uses of QR codes I think like most technologies we’re in the “mania” phase where uses range from good to “why did I even bother?”. I was at a Beer Festival over the weekend and one of the beer companies had a QR code on their poster. No explanation of what it did. I was curious so I scanned and it brought me to their Facebook page. Hardly a value add there.

    However, I see great potential for QR codes to take advantage cross channels – merging in-store and online. This is particularly useful for complex purchases. As a few of the commenters have mentioned – cars and consumer electronics are just a sampling of great pairings with QR codes. How many times have we found ourselves in a store googling reviews or how to use something before we buy?

  • Anonymous

    Since I’m not a mobile user, I just googled QR codes Mark ; )
    Thanks to you and your “community of knowledgeables” for bringing this to my attention.
    Learning about QR codes is now on my “bucket list”
    Lifelong learning is in this year ; )

  • Quick subroutine: More on augmented reality in the mobile device world at http://developer.qualcomm.com/newsletter/qdevnet-newsletter-issue-3#perspective

  • Speaking of augmented reality on mobile devices, Georgia Tech is breaking some ground there: http://developer.qualcomm.com/newsletter/qdevnet-newsletter-issue-3#perspective

  • Once QR readers are built into smartphone firmware, they will take off like a rocket. This is exactly the same situation we saw with Flash. When you had to download Flash, adoption rate was like 40%. Once Flash was built into the browser, it became 95%+.

    We just need to settle the Beta vs. VHS-style debates around QR formats, and get a standard built in to the phone.

  • I should say I’m not wholly objective on this, since we have 22 codes (via Microsoft Tag) embedded in the pages of The NOW Revolution.

  • Much-valued insight from one of the brilliant minds on {grow}. Thanks Jody!

  • I love your enthusiasm Dr. Rae!

  • Fantastic additions John. Thank you!

  • Yes but that could be very effective because people WANT more content from you and will know they’re getting something great. It will be valued and predictable. Will be interesting to see what kind of feedback you get on it!

  • Anonymous

    Thank you Mark for noticing! : )
    And, I love your ability to share your knowledge and your self in such an accessible, authentic and heartfelt manner Mark!

  • Larry Irons

    First off, the name itself is an impediment to diffusion of the technique. I’ve harped on that point before saying these are visual tags, or v-tags. Try using QR Code as a verb and that tells you a great deal about the failure of the concept to be intelligible to many people.


    I remember the first time I said I was going to Google something to another person who remarked they had never heard Google used as a verb. The weather channel is a good example of the latter point as I noted in “Experience Design and the Intelligibility of Interfaces.”


    However, I think you need to keep in mind that web sites with dynamic url pages are very difficult to access by typing in a url. That provides QR Codes (ugghhh!) with distinct advantages.

  • Mark,

    Interesting take and I have to say I agree with one point and disagree with another.

    First the opener problem. You are correct. For QR to explode or become commonplace we’ll need QR readers software resident on smart phones from day 1, like it is in Japan where the codes began and where they are now quite commonplace. Good news, that’s beginning. More and more we’re seeing phones, especially from asian manufacturers coming pre-loaded with QR. So that’s the agreement.

    But here’s the disagreement. You’re suggesting the real solution is a platform like Wordlens. But as a user, you’d have had the same “opener” problem. You would either have to have that app on your phone or pay the expensive roaming charges to get it. Further, apps like Wordlens — those using Augmented Reality or AR — usually require an internet connection to work. So again, you’d have that pesky roaming charge problem.

    QR isn’t a perfect solution only because it’s not mainstream…yet. But think back just four or five years ago — and think in terms of text messaging. You didn’t see text XXXX to YYYY as a marketing vehicle. People were not on unlimited text plans, texting wasn’t a mass adopted technology. But today — I dare say a significant portion, if not all of US based society, understands what a text code is, how to play along and has a device that can play along. Give QR a few more years and I think you’re going to find the US (and the rest of the world) uses them just as commonly as you see today in Japan.


  • Tremendous point Larry. Thanks for adding to the discussion!

  • All good points and you may be right. I agree that the need and the potential is there, especially if the delivery to the consumer is effortless. Thanks for taking the time to offer this excellent contribution to the dialogue Tom! Well done!

  • This is exactly my platform as well.

    Remove the middle step, make it native to smartphone cameras, and watch the adoption rates boom.

  • Temple

    And the QR codes are ugly. You might laugh but that goes along way towards people wanting them next to their finely crafted marketing image. And toward people buying into that image. Rarely does promoting the pixel over the blended color work.

  • Like Marjorie, I’m in B2B marketing and I agree with her that QR Codes hold some significant potential for bringing lead gen back into print advertising. In fact, a few weeks back I mentioned them to a publisher who was unfamiliar with what they were and how they worked. He was so excited by the possibility of being able to tie lead ROI to his print products that he is now offering QR Codes to all his advertisers. (I’m not sure why advertisers would want a publisher to do this for them, but I didn’t want to burst his bubble. He was on a roll.)

    Will they be long lived? Who knows? But for the time being, these Quirky Codes do hold some potential if you use them to provide meaningful and valuable content to customers and prospects.

  • This is really slick stuff. I have Google Translate on my Droid. It will take spoken language and respond with the proper translation. I know some Spanish. But not enough to converse properly with the policia on Christmas day in Panama City Panama. I was very hung over and out looking for lunch. There was a suspect with a gun they were looking for and the streets were empty. He stopped me and it took a lot of effort to explain I had no gun. Luckily just after the handcuffs came out his partner radioed that they got the guy. It I only had my Droid2 I wouldn’t of been sitting at Pizza Hut shaking and afraid to leave to reach my hotel.

    Of course no Droid App yet. I feel oppressed once again.

  • Anonymous

    Great post! I’ve actually wanted to write on that exact idea for a while. I think the idea of the physical world to digital through a mobile phone is a big idea… but QR are a clumsy way to do it. Ugly, complicated, and already made obsolete by smarter technology before they get a chance to hit the mainstream. Very well said, Mark!

  • Interesting perspective. I guess once you get past the hip thing, yeah … they’re ugly : )

  • Wonderful contribution. Love that idea for B2B if there is traction. Thanks Jude!

  • You get the award for most colorful comments. Always. Thanks man!

  • Guest22

    QR (and most 2D) code is now fairly old technology. It’s adoption in Japan and other regions is quite dated, and happened due to a number of factors. Adoption in the West has been much slower and while Brands are all “testing” QR right now, they are generally doing a half-baked (being kind) effort. The value of the mobile experience that follows the resolve is often terrible.

    The market is further self-fracturing with proprietary Apps that use QR, but, require custom apps (not a QR reader) to reach the resolve.

    Augmented Reality is quite a different beast. It has it’s own place; but, it relies on a lot of factors (GPS/accelerometer, etc.) that will not likely be on the majority of phones for sometime, if ever.

    The recent efforts with NFC (near field communication) is a more likely new technology that will leapfrog QR (the new NFC efforts, not those of Nokia in the past). There’s also Google’s GOGGLES that can fulfill QR and quasi-Augmented Reality, plus visual Search.

    Basically, I believe the premise of this Post is correct, QR’s days are numbered. There is no widespread consumer love for it. Likely, it will peak sometime in 2011 and then fade. New technologies will fulfill and offer far better experiences for mobile customers.

  • Thanks. This has been a great discussion. Many good perspectives on this innovation. I hope you still write your blog post and expand on the ideas. Thanks Tom!

  • Clearly the author of this article makes some fine points. The barrier for entry exists. But such barrier has existed in most mediums through time, radios needed to become prevalent and affordable before radio advertising was effective, televisions had the same barrier for entry, as well did the internet. But they all have one thing in common. When the technology became affordable to the average consumer, advertising became effective on that medium.

    Right now QR Codes do have the barrier for entry, a smart phone. It is said by the end of 2011 50% of all mobile phones will be smart phones. I just saw a TV ad for a $49 smart phone that runs on the android OS.

    On top of that, QR Code technology needs to develop in such a way that it provides value to both the consumer and the advertiser. I recently launched http://www.SocialQRCode.com which allows businesses to promote their social networks through QR Codes. I also created a functionality that allows users to create a coupon and when it is redeemed, they can share it via FB or Twitter.

    More smart phones, paired with better QR technology, will make QR codes popular.

  • Great conversation you have going Mark.
    What I would actually like to see is QR integrated with AR and Socialmedia. I don’t know about others but I go shopping I always wish there was a quick way to compare products based on consumer reviews (amongst other things)
    part a: I should be able to ‘Tag’ 3-4 or more QR codes from a store shelf and see a comparison of the ingredients, nutrition facts etc. And the ability to pull up comparative reviews pulled from blogs/sites etc. written by independents etc.
    part b: If i did this for bottled water I may find just how environmentally unsound that product is too.

    That quick, easy access to information would truly empower consumers…and probably encourage corporate accountability more than ever.

  • Some brands are experimenting with this in the UK, but they are far from prevalent. Businesses, in the States especially, seem to have embraced the concept of QR on business cards. With the latest smartphone apps, you can easily drop contact details into your address book. That might be one enduring use?

  • Hey Mark, isn’t that a bit too sharp a reaction … ? If you ask such a wide question, you cannot only accept free valuable content to fill your blog. Besides that, the input of a firm like above is, that the market needs agile independent companies developing user-friendly programmes that make the swap between static / print / analog to mobile / digital / virtual in a simple way.

  • Mark, I have to say, I have not been excited about QR codes so I was glad to finally see a skeptical/reticent post about them. I have yet to see anyone execute them with enough interest to make me thing QR code was the right application for their plan. In other words, I see a lot of organizations using them to be cool, to show they can use the shiny new object.

    Your Bordeaux example is the best I’ve seen (and maybe that’s because I glazed over with envy that you were in Bordeaux, so forgive me). International roaming issues aside, I LOVE that application of QR codes, and the fact that you can update it without producing new posters.
    I guess time will tell…..

  • Thanks for your insights Lisa. Who knows where it will lead but it’s fun to think about. To make the leap to mainstream adoption, QR codes will have to make the leap past the geek community of early adopters and provide real consumer added-value. I think there is a real possibility of over-exposure, under-delivering that will make people tire of them but we’ll see. Thanks for commenting!

  • See my comment below about business cards and “bump.” Also, I would not say the practice is widespread here yet. You’re not too far behind : ) Thanks Rene!

  • Man those are awesome ideas! Those are the great mash-ups that consumers would love! Super comment Jacob!

  • I agree with you — basically you are saying make the “opener” easy and people are more likely to adopt. I do think it is more difficult to change consumer behaviors than you suggest here. Technology is the easy part. Adoption is very difficult when people have to be “taught” to do something new. That’s why QR codes may be vulnerable if an easier-to-use (and less ugly) system is in the wings.

  • Well, behind your cloak of mystery you seem to know what you’re talking about and I thank you for this insight and contribution! Excellent comment.

  • Actually that was a muted reaction. I’ve had nearly 8,000 comments on {grow}. I’ve only deleted two of them, both for blatant self-promotion unrelated to the topic at hand.

    This one is related to the topic and I hope the person will contribute some meaningful insight about adoption based on their expertise.

    If this becomes a forum only dedicated to self-promotion, {grow} will become Quora : )

    Thanks for sharing your comment and for disagreeing with me. I like that.

  • Thanks for the post and discussion on QR codes. I am just starting to look into this, not sure it has any application for our clients, but the idea is a good one, looking forward to seeing where it goes with future iterations

  • You’re welcome Jeff.

  • Jay – what made you choose Microsofts tag over open 2D formats like QR Code or Datamatrix? just curious.

  • where QR codes come into their own are often for long/complex URLs. “Place a bet on team A v team B with player X scoring in first half”: scan this: CODE…..kerching! OR http://yadaydadada.com/yadabada/boyaah/1231231241223/oooola/232323/&$/&·/&bhjg233(/& …..you get the point.

  • 3 things. Ability to create custom tags (although we couldn’t use them in the book); the ease of creating and changing URLs that Tags point to; and the certainty that Microsoft would still be in business down the road.

  • We are a marketing firm in the mid west, and QR Codes have controlled my working days now almost exclusively for 3 months now. For specific industries it is having a quick take off, for example Real Estate. I agree with many of the post and all have good points, Tom Martin’s post 2 days ago I think best sums up the situation. Phones are coming with apps on them now, and if you don’t have an app this is really an easy download. Blackberries though seem to offer the most problems. Most people I talk to do not know what a QR barcode is and this technology is still in its early growth stage. QR bar codes are really affordable for our clients and as we produce video and website design, this is really in our wheelhouse!
    What I have not noticed mentioned is Microsoft Tag? We are using this and the QR code simultaneously and are curious to see how Microsoft goes after this!

    Jim with color design innovations, inc.

  • Agreed. If you build it, they will come, does not always work. If it makes more work for the consumer, he or she will not use QR codes. If there is a reward for using QR codes, they will work. They appear to be an extra step for the consumer. The company’s website could be listed on a poster, instead of a QR code which leads to the website. If there is a game with QR codes, then it is fun and engaging for the consumer. WordLens is very impressive. It remains to be seen if the fascinating augmented reality will take off.

  • Well said, Carol. Thank you!

  • Extremely interesting. Real estate using, but does it move the needle or is it a gimmick? I’d rather have the darn flyer I think : )

  • I can’t say that I agree much with the above line of reasoning to apply as a blanket to 2-D codes but for this use case, it does make sense. The comments that follow the article, for the most part, actually are more along the lines of my experience and thinking.

    The reason we’re involved with 2-D Barcodes today and make the recommendation when it’s appropriate, is that they work as a “connector” to a relevant, engagement enhancing digital experience on the mobile web primarily. Other connectors work- SMS short codes and keywords, links from emails opened on mobile devices, even typing in a URL directly into a mobile browser. Relatively though, having a URL on a poster is a nightmare compared to the ease of opening your favorite app and scanning (for those who have a favorite app). A correct experience occurring post-scan on a QR code will not take you to a general landing page- it’ll take you directly to an experience that is an enhancement to the context that you did the scan from. From a URL perspective, this would require either extensive extensions resulting in a huge URL to key in, or, it would require some pretty off-brand domain registration and the administration that comes with that. It’s a widely accepted truism of UX on mobile devices that typing in a URL is done less by people the longer it gets, even if its short. Sad in some ways but makes a lot of sense in others and its a reality you can choose to ignore or acknowledge (I vote acknowledge because it helps the effort to be more successful 🙂 ).

    As far as the “opener” analogy, never was it predicted that 50% of people that drink beer out of cans would have well manicured nails and need these openers (and lets be honest fellas, from a business perspective, those people are probably not even buying the beers, right? 🙂 . No one disagrees that within the next 18 months, 50% of mobile subscribers are going to own “openers” (smartphones) capable of accessing these 2-D experiences. That said, a best practice today in implementing these correctly is to assume that anyone who sees a code has never seen one before and to educate them accordingly. Advanced users, already comfortable with the process and already having their own favorite readers or apps will skip directly to “GO” and collect their winnings. Those that need more instruction should have that with helpful images and text that explains both how to get the best app for their phone, how to scan, and also what the value exchange is going to be for their effort. Then they need to go to a purpose-built, relevant, rich digital experience- this cannot be stressed enough.

    Personally, I think AR isn’t going to replace QR, it’ll actually in many cases be dependent on QR to activate it (maybe consider it a “gateway” technology). Existing codes that are already deployed will be able to be changed so that when someone focuses an AR reader in them, they key an AR experience. That is, once 4G network speeds are the norm, people know what AR is, and devices are capable of running off the GPS, accelerometer, and always limited battery life. Technically, even in the case above, AR isn’t even a connector, it’s a technology that expresses values in images and direction vs other means of expression we see today like search results in google, mobile web pages, and such.

    What is ultimately going to replace the functionality that QR provides so well today is NFC- something that even the insightful comments didn’t touch upon- but that is another conversation all together.

  • We actually did talk about near-field communications early on in the comments…I think you’ll find agreement on that.

  • Dave Lawson

    Excellent- thanks for catching that for me.

  • Although you position this as a disagreement, I really don;t think it is. You make valid points which agree with me precisely. First, the technology works – no argument. But success is contingent on consumer adoption. There are three hurdles to adoption which you point out: effective consumer education, critical mass of the “opener,” and finally a “correct” or rich experience that provides real value that is greater than the time it takes to access the information. I’ve basically said the same thing.

    If those stars align, then sure, QR codes will be successful. But I don’t think the job of changing consumer behavior should be under-estimated.

    In many of these examples in the comment section, the benefit to the consumer is a big “who cares.” You scan an ad to get another ad. You climb out of a car to scan a realty sign when the paper flyers are sitting right there. You scan a drink umbrella to get who knows what. This is fun and novel but really ineffective uses of the technology that may dilute the value.

    Thanks for your excellent comment.

  • I think all this stuff is still in the “molding” stage. Technology changes so rapidly these days, it’s hard to gauge what’s going to catch on, to what extent, and for how long. What about the location-based applications – FourSquare and all that? How will those platforms integrate things like QR codes and/or augmented reality? Are these technologies all mutually exclusive, or will they play well together and enhance one another’s usefulness? In any case, we’ll look back in a couple years at this conversation and laugh. Kind of like that 1994 clip from the Today Show that’s been circulating where Bryant Gumbel was confounded by the @ symbol and what email and the Internet were. Who knows where all this is leading?

  • Absolutely. Although the technology is changing so rapidly, I take some comfort in the fact that human behaviors are fundamentally the same. It doesn’t matter how cool a technology is – if it is confusing, difficult to access, or there is a better mousetrap some place else, it will never get past the geek adoption stage.

    In other posts I’ve written about the current problems with Quora. What stupefies me is that all of their problems should have been apparent through customer feedback in beta. Did they ignore it? Never got it? Think that they could fake it till they make it?

    This is a very wise comment Jeremy. We are living in a wonderful time indeed!

  • Pingback: Will Augmented Reality Leap-Frog the QR Code? | News Mesh()

  • My understanding, via anecdotal evidence at this point since I haven’t actually seen the results, is that BlackBerry is the only device maker prevalent in North America to provide a proprietary QR reader to its customers — apparently versions 5.0 and up of the BBM app have QR reader capability built-in.

  • Pingback: Will Augmented Reality Leap-Frog the QR Code? | SouravSharmaDotCom()

  • Pingback: Le QR code est-il déjà dépassé ? | ledjam.com (Conseil & Réalisation Digitale : web, multi-média, flash, developpeur, graphiste, designer, paris)()

  • Jims

    Mark the flyer is still prevalent, though many realtors have cut back due to the economy and look to the QR technology with video and web development to position them selves and rekindle activity. Cant say the evidence is in yet on moving the needle.

  • Jims

    Android smartphones also Jonathan.

  • Pingback: Competition – QR Codes and the Beer Can [30Jan11] | The Book()

  • Yes, an app is needed. But For properly applied QR codes, like URLs and vcards, a “special” app is not needed. My droidX has an excellent free generic code reader that automatically parses and reads standard information formats like URLs and vcards. There are similar free generic apps for iPhones.

    The problems you encountered in France were due to bad application design. They are not inherent to QR codes.

  • Joe – did the generic code reader you are referring to, come pre-loaded on the phone or did you have to get it from the market?

  • I think the Opener situation will be resolved ad QR readers become more ubiquitous and global. After a while, the better ones will become standard, the same way Web browsers (another opener) evolved.

    As others have mentioned, typing into a mobile device can be a pain in the keester. Being able to scan then visit opens up a lot of possibilities. People use mobile devices to take photos of snippets of information but now they can scan and access the content on their phones. This could also turn into a payment gateway. Lots of potential because scanning connects the two media.

  • It came pre-loaded. All Android phones do. And it is no different than a “special” app. Sure the apps may look and feel different, but they can all decode any QR code.

  • Thanks for your perspective Dave. Certainly this is getting easier to access but the more I learn about augmented reality, the more I think it is going to just leap frog this stuff.

  • jw onsight solutions

    Your perspective has merit but it seems, to me, that it’s kind of limited. Augmented reality, while impressive technology, falls short in a number of ways. This is about QR codes though.

    While QR codes have been in the world for a bit, they are still quite new new to the US, and I think QR code innovation is still in it’s infancy. that being said, this is America for God’s sake, and the land of innovative thinkers. Somebody will figure all of this out, overcome the challenges, and make it work. In fact, I’ve been hearing some buzz about a few companies that are on all of this in a big way. I’ve also heard some buzz about QRL CODES which are said to be the next generation of QR code. We’ll see on that but, the point is there are clearly a lot of people working to make this work.

    One company I’ve heard of is scanmycode.com. I went to the site but its still under construction. The word is they are onto some big things. In fact, I think that’s where I heard about this QRL CODE thing.

    The biggest problem I currently see with QR codes is that there are so many many people peddling QR codes and QR code services that are clearly limited with regard to understanding and innovation. My hope is that THIS doesn’t end up being the reason for QR codes dying out.

  • Pingback: Creative QR codes()

  • Mark, thanks for retweeting this post. At UT Knoxville, we are starting some major construction projects on campus, requiring the rerouting of vehicle and pedestrian parking for the next few years. We’re adding QR codes to the pedestrian-route signs, so that folks walking around campus can scan a code and see a “you-are-here” Google map. It’s not practical for vehicular traffic, but seems smart for pedestrians.

  • Pingback: QR Codes: underwhelming or misused by brands? | Todd Bacile's Marketing Blog()

  • Pingback: QR codes—are you using or misusing them?()

  • Pingback: Creative QR codes | Sensory Branding Firm for Businesses and the Hospitality Industry :: Miss Details Design, Scottsdale, Phoenix, Tempe, ArizonaSensory Branding Firm for Businesses and the Hospitality Industry :: Miss Details Design, Scottsdale, Phoenix,()

  • Pingback: Snapchat engagement and other myths - Schaefer Marketing Solutions: We Help Businesses {grow}()

  • Pingback: A company in turmoil. Why Snapchat is Wall Street's new Twitter - Schaefer Marketing Solutions: We Help Businesses {grow}()

The Marketing Companion Podcast

Why not tune into the world’s most entertaining marketing podcast that I co-host with Tom Webster.

View details

Let's plot a strategy together

Want to solve big marketing problems for a little bit of money? Sign up for an hour of Mark’s time and put your business on the fast-track.

View details


Send this to a friend