Why QR codes on ads are the solution to a problem that doesn’t exist any more

Know Digital founder and partner Rob Jenkins explains why increasingly popular QR codes on ads are no longer the best way to drive traffic to mobile websites.

About five years ago I wrote a blog post for my previous agency predicting that QR codes were going to become increasingly visible in the UK over the next few years. QR codes are those little square barcode things that look like robot barf that are cropping up on ads all over the place. Here are some examples.

Now that they have, I’ve changed my mind about them.

I was prompted to talk about them by a trip to Japan, where they have been ubiquitous for the last eight or so years. It made sense in Japan at the time (pre iPhone) as it was the quickest way to access a mobile website – do you remember trying to type out a long url on standard phone keypad? it was too much of a hassle only to find the site didn’t work on a phone. QR codes solved this problem.

Fast forward to the UK in 2012. I’m seeing them plastered everywhere. Do they still make sense? well, sometimes. One of the benefits a QR code offers is that you can use a different URL for each location, so you know which locations are driving traffic to your mobile website or you can direct traffic to a specific, highly relevant page – eg, at a bus stop you can direct users to a page that tells them when the next bus is due.

However, the majority of QR codes being used by ad agencies aren’t doing anything quite so clever, they are just replacements for a standard web address, which is where I have a problem with them. When QR codes were first being used in Japan they solved a problem – URLs were a pain to type in and created a barrier to viewing mobile websites – however that problem has been solved by smartphones and URL shorteners.

Compare the two user journeys:

1. Assume you have a QR reader in the first place, which is a big assumption to start with. The user has to open the application, wait for the camera to start up, move close enough to the poster to fill the frame with the code, hold still while the picture is taken, wait a second or so for it to be processed and then click the link to open the browser and go to the page.

2. Open the browser, type the URL into the address bar using a QWERTY keyboard, page opens.

Which is simpler and easier? My problem with QR codes is that they are attempting to solve a problem that since the iPhone launched doesn’t exist anymore.

It seems a classic case of agencies and brands using a technology that they’ve picked up on for the sake of it without thinking about the user experience.

Agencies need to remember that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

So my advice, next time someone tells you to put a QR code on your ad, think about the user experience. Does the QR code make something simpler and easier to access or are you expecting someone to walk across a track on, say, the London Underground, to photograph a code on a poster, to access a site, that can’t be loaded underground?

Even in the case above where a QR code can be used to track location response or deep link to a relevant page I’d argue that this could be done more effectively and quickly with a URL shortener.

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One comment

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    Couldn’t agree more. They are an ugly waste of space, an empty technology gesture.