The Great QR Code Debate

Very few people in the mobile industry are neutral about QR codes. People either love 'em or hate 'em and think they'll go away as soon as other (NFC, augmented reality) technologies take over. QR code boosters cite data that show scanning rates are increasing and promote successful case studies. Detractors cite surveys that show most people don't know what they are and generally ignore them.

AdAge covers Forrester data that argues "only 5% of Americans who own mobile phones actually used the 2-D barcodes in the three months ending July 2011 . . . and those 14 million early adopters tended to be young, affluent and male." Earlier comScore data confirmed this demographic profile: 

More than half of all QR code scanners were between the ages of 18-34 (53.4 percent). Those between the age of 25-34, who accounted for 36.8 percent of QR code scanners, were twice as likely as the average mobile user to engage in this behavior, while 18-24 year olds were 36 percent more likely than average (index of 136) to scan. More than 1 of every 3 QR code scanners (36.1 percent) had a household income of at least $100,000, representing both the largest and most over-represented income segment among the scanning audience.

ComScore extrapolated from its survey that 14 million Americans had scanned a QR code. Most scanning occurred on traditional media ads or product packaging, though many had scanned QR codes online.

Last year marketing firm Russell Herder conducted a survey (n=500) that confirmed the demographic profile of QR code scanners presented above, and also that it was a minority use case. The majority of mobile users have not scanned one.

According to the survey almost 75% of respondents had seen QR codes. However a dramatically smaller percentage had actually scanned one. 

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Most significantly the actual experience of scanning a QR code was generally mixed. Respondents said that doing so only delivered value "sometimes" for most people (although 80% had a positive experience one could argue).

Beyond the "how-to" problem, most marketers in my experience aren't delivering a sufficient reason to scan codes. If all QR codes offered discounts, for example, many more people would scan them. But in most ads the reason to scan a code is unclear; only occasionally is there a specific QR call to action. 

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As a practical matter, for the time being at least, QR codes amount to a way to make a "tech-forward" branding statement and not much more. If marketers put more "meat" behind QR codes they could develop some staying power and become more mainstream. However if they're not used thoughtfully then they will be swept aside when NFC or some other "new, new" mobile marketing vehicle comes along.