A Big Question Hangs Over QR Codes

Are They Dead or Alive? 

The Fremantle Society in co-operation with Fremantle BID have recently started to install QR code plaques on historic building in Fremantle. These are neat, high-tech panels each containing a unique code which is scanned by an App installed in a smart phone or tablet. If all works well the App should open a website which allows the viewer to study information about the building or other artefact to which the plaque is attached.

Was it a good move by Fremantle BID and the Fremantle Society to implement their use on Fremantle buildings or a waste of public money?

Fremantle Backchat asked Tim Milsom, the CEO of the Fremantle Chamber of Commerce, if he knew of any Chamber members who had installed the codes. He said the Chamber itself used them on its business cards but offered no further information.

A local photographer, Glen Cowans, has them installed in his gallery on information panels beneath each of his pictures. He  sees some people using the codes but has not noticed an increase in sales and has no idea if they do have an effect on sales.

The West Australian newspaper, in an article related to the effectiveness of QR codes explained that of the number of QR codes applied in adverts they found from a survey of advertisers that less than 2000 readers had used the codes. The newspaper claims a blanket coverage in Western Australia, a readership approaching two million a day.

Fremantle Society Committee Member Resigned Over QR Codes Issue: ‘They had better things to do with resources.’

Ron Davidson,  a pillar of the Fremantle Society, said The Society’s resources were far too limited to waste on the QR codes. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back and he resigned from the committee.

Davidson said:

‘I was teetering on the brink at that point … the FS had limited resources and they’d be better spent doing other things  … the standard things the society has always done … to study plans … to project a general philosophy about Fremantle.’

Davidson agreed that The Society has become little more than a public relations mouthpiece for Fremantle Council. He continued:

‘The last newsletter seemed bizarre, all it did was list things they [council] were doing  but offering no critical analysis. The basic feeling [among the committee] was that you couldn’t be critical … that you have to be positive. One of my colleagues has said:  “One of the most positive things you can have is good criticism.’”

Did BID and The Society Ask the Hard Questions?

But did BID and The Society conduct due diligence? A simple search indicates there are many arguments which indicate the codes are not effective.

Only between 6 and 17% of smart phone owners have downloaded a QR code App to their phone. The biggest uptake has been in Germany.  Also, while smart phones are widely used they are by no means owned by every mobile phone user. Thus the target market is relatively small compared with the overall number of mobile phone users.

No smart phone manufacture has incorporated a QR scanner within their product. There are several Apps available which will scan codes but why, if the system is good, have they not been built into smart phones at the manufacturing stage?

The Joke Is … QR Codes Have a Negative Reputation

The answer may rest in a quote by Alexander Taub, published in Forbes magazine in December 2012. He says:

“One of the most popular Tumblr blogs of 2012 is Pictures of People Scanning QR Codes. If you click through to the site you will see that it is empty. The joke here? No one scans QR codes (short for Quick Response code). It is obvious that QR codes have a bad rep and haven’t gained much traction on the consumer end of the equation”.

Taub, in an interview with Garrett Gee of ‘Scan’, a company which dominates scanning technology, quotes Gee as saying:

“ … amongst technical experts, QR codes definitely have a negative reputation”

Better Technology is Around the Corner

He continues:

“We believe that better technologies will eventually replace QR codes and Scan will be right there leading the way. However, many people thought NFC would kill QR codes overnight. We knew this wouldn’t be the case. QR codes are far too spread throughout the world and even if NFC gets to where many hope to see it, there will always be certain use cases where QR codes simply make better sense (large signs, magazines, mailers, etc).”

There are problems associated with the manufacture of QR codes. The codes are small square images, looking a little like a miniature black and white mosaic. Problems occur if the slightest error in producing the code is made. This can cause a scanned code to lead the viewer to a different website.

 QR Codes Are Expensive To Use

Code reading is a time consuming process and, if people are using prepaid phones, expensive.

It costs approximately $1 per minute to use a mobile phone, especially pre paid systems. Given  the time to scan and download information many users would not be prepared to scan dozens in a day or so.

Sean X Cummings commented on iMedia Connections in 2011:

“Unfortunately the technology behind QR codes was not invented for advertising and marketing; we are just co-opting its usage, and it shows.

“From the relative lack of public understanding of what they even are, to the dearth of creativity in their usage, the QR code is destined to become just the little box that geek built. But if it does go the way of CueCat, only we are to blame. Here’s why.”

Survey Shows The General Public Are Oblivious to QR Codes

“The current use of QR codes in advertising is … I could finish that statement with “stupid,” “useless,” “uncreative,” or “uninspiring.” Surprisingly, that is not news to anyone at advertising agencies or brands. QR codes seem to be a last ditch effort; … The general public seems largely oblivious to what they are used for, and why they are on all those ads. In my informal “on the street” survey of 300 people last month, I held up a sign with a QR code on it and the phrase: “Free gift if you can tell me what this is.”

Cummings conducted the survey in San Francisco, an area he describes as being the veritable mecca of tech. He simply showed people the code and asked if they could identify what it is. Here are the statistics he recorded:

• 11 percent correctly answered QR code or quick response code

• 29 percent responded with “Some bar code thingy”

• Seven percent guessed some variant of “Those things you stare at that get 3D when you cross your eyes.  What picture is it? I can’t seem to get it”

• The remaining 53 percent tried everything from a secret military code, Korean (uh really?), to an aerial street map of San Francisco

QR codes were developed in 1994 by the car manufacturing industry to assist with production. Only in recent years have they been applied in the broader community.

Dumb Marketers

In April 2013 Aaron Strout published an article, “The Death of the QR Code”, for Marketing Land. He closely examined the death of the QR code and the reasons for it’s demise. He numbered several significant causes, among them the fact that no manufacturer has pre-loaded a QR reader into a smart phone. He lists the importance of wifi connectivity and the simple fact that wifi is not available in many places. In replies to his blog many people confirmed his views. They are liberally sprinkled with comments like:

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried scanning these codes only to be taken to non-mobile optimized sites, or worse, to a site where I scratched my head wondering what the connection to the original call-to-action was.”

“I don’t think they’re dead. I think marketers are/were dumb.”

“…our study results combined with our first-hand experience, lean towards a
fading trend for these little guys for use in advertising. People in
general are curious individuals, but unfortunately pulling out a phone,
loading an app and then scanning the code is possibly far more effort
than most people care to deal with to satisfy a curiosity of discovering
what the code offers, or links to.”

“I could not agree more…I think these are archaic and on their way out. They take too much time, they are ugly, and not convenient.”

“They were never alive. QR Codes have been a failure from the outset. No question.”

Did Anybody at BID or The Fremantle Society Ask The Obvious Question?

There is enough evidence to suggest  QR cards can work well in some situations but the level of dissatisfaction is very high. Maybe too high for the Fremantle Society and Fremantle BID to have risked public and private money until more research into the effectiveness of the system is proven in the manner proposed. Did anybody within BID or the Fremantle Society ask the most obvious question:

“Why have no other cities in Australia adopted QR coding?”

It would certainly have be prudent for the Society and BID to have investigated why no other council has supported the implementation of QR codes. However, such codes or similar systems may well be beneficial but nothing short of a marketing miracle will turn them into the silver bullet Fremantle needs.

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