When Do QR Codes Work?


We know what a QR Code is. It’s one of the many marketing tools in marketer’s tool bag 2D code technologies received a lot of hyped over the last two years with widespread availability and adoption of mobile internet. Expectations were a bit out of proportion, to say the least, and we’ve seen some great examples, as well as, a lot of horrible examples of QR Code abuse as a consequence.

That said, it has also been a hype based on something real, the technology is good, it’s just hard to run a good QR Code or 2D code campaign. In Gartner’s hype cycle of innovation, the technology can poetically be seen as being part of the “Slope of Enlightenment.”

By now, best practices are being developed, and actual useful platforms to run a 2D Code campaign are becoming available. We’re clearly seeing the technology being useful for reaching out to mobile consumers.

To know when 2D codes work you’d have to look at three things:

  • Targeting, thinking about who you’re talking to and what they know.
  • How you’re rewarding the scanner for scanning.
  • The mobile app used for scanning the QR Code, an often overlooked but key ingredient for a strong campaign.

Targeting, what potential scanners already know:

In Japan, QR Codes did very well from the start. So where did we go so differently? Scanners as well as campaigners were given a good example.

The People in Japan knew what to expect and had the opportunity to take action right from the start, because the mobile devices were equipped with scanning software at the same time. DoCoMo, a Japanese mobile operator and provider ran ads showing people how to use QR Codes and what to expect. The DoCoMo ad showed a mobile coupon and this is how people got introduced to the technology in 2006.

The lesson here is obvious, (re)educate and (re)set expectations. It boils down to setting the correct context.

  • If you’re linking to a mobile app, put a clear app store logo beside the code.
  • If you’re linking to social media, show recognizable logos.
  • If it’s just a site that the QR code links to, add a (short) URL beneath it.
  • When there’s a reward, say what they will get precisely.

You wouldn’t just put a big button on a website without a label, or a big call to action now, would you? When you’re writing copy around your QR Code campaign, think about reward, intent and conversion.

Target who will scan your codes

1. People with smartphones.

Someone who scans a code in your QR Code campaign will have money to buy a smartphone or was given one. That narrows down the demographic a little bit.

2. People with a mobile Internet connection.

They paid for a phone and are paying for a mobile data-plan, and because they’re mobile, you better put that code somewhere where they have network reach. Research shows that students aren’t big scanners as you’d believe them to be, but middle-aged women, on the other hand, are.

3. They have an app installed on their phone that can scan.

Most Android devices are rolling out of the factory with a barcode scanner pre-installed nowadays, but an iPhone or iPad will require you to install a free app via the app store. On most of the other mobile platforms, the scanning software is too far tucked away in menus, or it requires advanced knowledge to install a scanning app.

4. People who want to give you a little bit of time by scanning your QR Code and who want to wait for a mobile webpage to load.

This means they are at least interested, they are most likely fans of your brand, or really want that coupon you might be offering. Reward them for scanning by matching their expectations. Look at it like an economical transaction, they are giving you time, you have to give something back they like. Just getting some hits on a website is less than useless, people don’t bookmark and tend not to return to sites they visited on mobile devices.

Taking control of the scanning experience

Some phones come equipped with a QR Code scanning application or you have to download a scanning application via the app store, as mentioned. The kind of scanner you’re downloading is a generic scanner.

That means you can use it to scan codes that are encoded for the most general purposes (going to a URL, sending an SMS, showing a location on a map,, etc.). Most of these apps can scan just about any barcode, but if you’re not interested in the bits and bytes that are in that code, it’s not worth much to you.

It’s perfectly possible to make a mobile app that uses scanning as a feature. The famous Tesco QR Code Subway Store example used a custom shopping application.

Glamour magazine has had an immense success with its mobile app that let people scan SnapTag(r) codes (another type of 2D code, much like QR Codes). Their September 2011 “Social Edition” produced 512,339 scans among a circulation of 2m readers, those scans resulted in 50,814 Facebook “likes.” As a reward, there were coupons to be earned. It worked so well, they will repeated this approach this year.

Even standard barcodes can be of great use; take Amazon’s mobile app, for instance, they put the scanner button in the valuable top right of their home screen. Allowing users to compare Amazon’s prices with every product they have in their hands. This approach is great for in-store campaigns.

You could look at this as if Amazon is using every product with a barcode on it as an entry point to their store by putting a barcode scanner in their mobile app.

The lesson here is that you should think about the full user experience, and consider making an app, or integrating scanning in your existing app, if it makes sense. This approach increases the chance of success, as it puts you in control of the action that follows the scan. Because your app is the starting point of the user-journey, they’ll already have a scanner on their phone.

Five Key takeaways:

  • Educate potential scanners, guide them, and set correct expectations.
  • Facilitate scanning, don’t force people to discover content via a scan.
  • Reward scanning, this is paramount.
  • Look further than only QR Codes, they are great, but there are other options, too.
  • Consider creating or upgrading a mobile app as a part of your campaign.