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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A Tale of Two Cities

Napier NZ  v  Fremantle WA

Should Napier’s Financial Recovery be Studied as a Template for Fremantle’s Future?

Visiting Napier in New Zealand is a revealing and somewhat elevating experience. It is worth comparing Napier to Fremantle.

Situated in Hawke’s Bay on the east coast of North Island, Napier is as remote a place as you could wish to find. About 30 years ago the city was staring in the teeth of financial ruin and only had a couple of claims to fame. It is one of the first places in the world to see the light of a new day and the original city was wiped out by an earthquake early in 1931. Following the earthquake a firestorm incinerated those buildings left standing apart from a small group of wooden houses on the beach front. They are still there.

Apart from making headlines following the earthquake the city may have remained unnoticed to this day –  isolated in one of the most remote countries in the world.

Napier - Art Deco detail as far as they eye can see. © Roger Garwood 2013
Napier – Art Deco detail as far as the eye can see.
© Roger Garwood 2013

In the aftermath of the earthquake Napier went through a total rebuild.  Four architectural firms co-operated and redesigned the city at the height of the Art Deco era. Using a combination of inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright , Maori motifs and  influences of the Spanish Mission style the city was totally rebuilt within two years.

In 1985, with financial gloom on the horizon, Napier needed a wake up call and it came when a small group of concerned residents saw potential for tourism.  An Art Deco Trust was established to underpin what is now one of New Zealand’s major industries, tourism.The Trust had recognised the city’s architecture could become the cornerstone of  financial revival. They were right.

Napier: Riding on the back of an Art Deco Wave are Astronomic Tourist Figures

Napier is now recognised as the worlds best preserved enclave of Art Deco architecture. That may be stretching a point as Miami in Florida could possibly lay the same claim. Nevertheless the Art Deco society promoted the city as such. Tourism statistics are now astronomic. In a recent 12 months period over 75 cruise liners visited the city, each packed to the gunnels with close to 2000 visitors. In addition the city hosted 1,600,000 tourists and of those over 600,000 stayed in hotels or other accommodation for one night or more.

In a recent broadcast of  ABC Radio’s Correspondents’ Report Dominique Schwartz interviewed Napier’s mayor, Barbara Arnott, who was expounding the virtues of Napier’s architectural trove.  ” … [tourism] generated fifteen million dollars just this weekend, but this weekend is the tip of the iceberg. We have Art Deco 365 days a year. And for Napier it is our point of difference”.

Napier, promoting itself as the world's Art Deco capital, attracts in excess of two million visitors a year.  This is the entrance to the Tobacco Company office © Roger Garwood 2013
Napier, promoting itself as the world’s Art Deco capital, attracts in excess of two million visitors a year. This is the entrance to the Tobacco Company office
© Roger Garwood 2013

The mayor continued: “It’s huge, not just for Napier but for the whole of Hawke’s Bay. Our accommodation is booked out, usually a year ahead, throughout the whole of Hawke’s Bay.”

Thus, riding on the back of its architecture, Napier performed a financial miracle. The town looks prosperous.  Comfortable street furniture situated in bright and airy pedestrian malls is placed under shady trees. The malls and streets meander though an Art Deco time warp and host  high quality shops which range from clothing stores, art galleries, restaurants, antique shops and general stores. It seems that flowers are everywhere and Art Deco sunrise motifs  rise from many building. Waterfront cafes are blooming and booming but principally this is a city of people who picked up a simple  idea, planned it thoroughly and used it to propel them into a secure financial future.

And here’s the rub. Fremantle’s gold rush architecture leaves Napier for dead.

High Street,  Fremantle. The world's finest example of gold rush architecture. © Roger Garwood 2013
High Street, Fremantle. The world’s finest example of gold rush architecture.
© Roger Garwood 2013

Fremantle: Riding on the Back of a Coffee Bean

In 1985, at the time when Napier woke up to its major asset, Fremantle was cresting the wave of America’s Cup fever. The city got a coat of paint and hosted about 40,000 visitors for close to three years. And then, with little more than a puff of wind, Fremantle fell off that wave and is now experiencing what may become the worst financial downturn in the city’s history.

The old adage is ‘When the going gets tough the tough get going”. And the tough did get going in Napier.

The problems with Fremantle have been well documented. The city is looking shabby, it has problems with social behaviour and violence, its service industry is second-rate. Shops are closing, rents are higher than anywhere in the world and days when Fremantle can ride on the back of a coffee bean are rapidly coming to an end.

South Terrace. Fremantle's economy rides  on the back of a coffee bean.  © Roger Garwood 2013
South Terrace. Fremantle’s economy rides on the back of a coffee bean.
© Roger Garwood 2013

Revival urgently needs kick starting with lateral thinking. What is wrong with The Fremantle Society  encompassing the potential of tourism? The combination of gold rush architecture and Fremantle’s overall history, marketed well,  would be a giant tourist magnet. Backed by BID, The Chamber of Commerce, WA Tourism Commission and Ficra as well as the City Council, all pulling in the same direction, it would be possible to turn the city’s current economy around in a short space of time.

Any one of Fremantle’s disparate groups could become the figurehead for a tourist led recovery. The Fremantle Society previously saved the city from structural disasters. It has the ability to follow that success through by utilising in-depth knowledge of the city’s architectural ancestry. Linking Fremantle’s potential with Kalgoorlie’s tourism promoters would be  feasible. The cities share a common historical foundation in a deep-rooted gold rush history and are linked by the umbilical cord of a railway line. The romance of gold, history and architecture – the finest of its genre in the world – could be marketed with a little imagination and a few people pooling common interests.

Send in a Gunboat – or a Delegation

The city’s principal asset is iconic West End architecture. Partly a result of the Fremantle Society’s past efforts it is the world’s best preserved 19th century port. With careful management and a touch of civic pride it can attract many more visitors from overseas. At present the economy will not turn around without more people visiting and spending  money in a revitalised city.

A starting point could be to send a delegation to Napier from The Fremantle Society, Fremantle City  Council, The WA Department for Tourism, BID and The Chamber of Commerce to speak with the groups who have made tourism work so well for them.

Market Street. Iconic buildlngs on every corner. © Roger Garwood 2103
Market Street. Fremantle has iconic buildings on every corner.
© Roger Garwood 2103

Loopers BID Failed

Roel Loopers Quits BID Committee

Fremantle BackChat understands that Roel Loopers, the President of the Fremantle Society has quit his position on the board of the Fremantle Business Improvement District (BID) committee. BID is an organisation which has been established to assist businesses in Fremantle and is partially  funded by ratepayers.

Loopers resignation, unlike his resignation from the presidency of the Fremantle Society, was made without fanfare. Unlike that resignation he has apparently not been asked to reconsider his BID decision.

Deadbeats And Has Beens

Concerns had been raised about Loopers suitability to be a member of the board. Shortly before he was elected to the BID board the Fremantle based photographer had referred to a group of successful professional photographers and academics, who had organised the Fremantle Portrait Prize, as: ” … a bunch of dead beats and has beens” on social media.

The Fremantle Portrait Prize, run by a group of dedicated volunteers attracted close to 700 entries from 22 countries and world-wide publicity for the city. Though it received no public funding the success of the venture was such that about $6000 was donated to charity. Loopers comments reverberated throughout the Australian photographic industry, were condemned as unethical and unprofessional and prompted one committee member to ask : “Does Roel drink?”

Shortly after Loopers made the comments he was elected to the board of the embryonic BID and questions were asked as to whether a person who had condemned members of his own profession and openly admitted his own business was struggling was a suitable candidate to advise other business owners.

Looking For Work

In a recent blog headed “Fremantle’s Ugliest Man Looking for Work” (Freo’s View 29 March 2013) Loopers intimated that his business has failed and he is looking for work. He said: ” … as my profession has not sustained me … I am keen to find additional work to create regular income”.

Over a period of several years a number people, mostly friends and colleagues,  made generous attempts to assist Loopers but that help and advice, in nearly every instance, was rejected.

Loopers is normally a generous, jovial and gregarious character, prepared to help anybody and to volunteer for many things. He has, as a result, received public recognition in the form of a citizen’s award. He also promotes himself as Fremantle’s most popular blogger using the social media as a cut and thrust, though often one sided and inaccurate, vehicle for his opinions and is frequently outraged when his debatable opinions are challenged.

However, in describing himself as the King of Uglyland he may be advertising another side of his character.

American Journalist Threatened

It has come to the attention of Fremantle BackChat  that Loopers has periodically sent emails to members of the community who have agitated him. These emails often contain personal insults and threats of legal action. In some cases [including this writer] he made accusations of bullying and threatened to ‘inform police’. When asked to produce the evidence or to post a comment or retraction to accusations on his blog he has steadfastly refused to do so.

In one instance an American journalist, who wrote an excellent promotional article about Fremantle on the internet, was threatened with legal action for copyright infringement. The journalist was accused of illegally using Loopers pictures to illustrate the Fremantle article. If there was an infringement it was possibly on the part of the people who chose the picture and posted them on the blog, not the journalist. Loopers has never proceeded with his threats against anybody and in that case did not make an apology for his erroneous accusation.

Churlish Action

In an incident involving a local entrepreneur Loopers voluntarily supplied a set of pictures, free of charge, to be used on a promotional web site. They were excellent images and did Loopers professional ability no harm at all. However it appears he had a fit of pique, presuming his work was not well enough appreciated. As a result he asked that the pictures be removed from the site and if they were not he would take action for copyright infringement. The email was impolite and his action appeared to have been churlish.

In light of these and other intemperate outbursts it seems that the choice for Loopers to be a BID member may have been poor.

Roger Garwood

DISCLOSURE: Roger Garwood is a judge for the 2013 Fremantle International Portrait Prize. He was not involved in the organisation of the 2012 event mentioned in this article.