local media insider

To use or not to use a QR Code

Centro's Paul Tapscott weighs in on using QR's in local media buys

Alisa Cromer
Consumers love offers - it's the number one reason they scan. Please click to enlarge.
Best practice: This Calvin Clein billboard takes full advantage of the new technology. The giant size can be scanned from phones far away, users get more information,and the campaign has an edgy appeal. Enough to download an app?

These pros and cons (and do's and don'ts) of using QR Codes are based interviews with LMI members and the resulting case studies, both for radio and television here  and for newspapers here. 

 In addition, we also interviewed Paul Tapscott, head of Mobile for Centro for background and a deep throat source on NFC (more on that later). First a definition: A QR (Quick Response) Code is simply a square printable code  that can be read (ie scanned) by a cell phones camera after a QR reader has been downloaded from the app store. Print is a natural fit for QR codes since they rely on printed material  - and allow more information to be accessed by phone. However, broadcast sites have been using codes on printed materials at events and to drive traffic to scan in store locations.

E-marketers'  breakdown of how QR Codes are actually used by consumers is the second image to the right, please click to enlarge.

Pro QR: Why QR Codes are Important 

1.Turns print into an interactive media right now

QR Codes still have enough cache that users expect to get something extra and different than, say, a print ad, poster or billboard. This is not just true for newspapers and magazines - but also  anything printed, from posters to decals, cars, murals and so on, all of which can  show a QR Code, and  allow scanners to obtain more information or an offer. Do make instructions clear, ie include a call to action, "Scan to get..." next to the code.

The number one reason consumers scan is to get a discount. QR codes allow people to collect a mobile coupon or offer without clipping or printing anything. 

From Carl Foisy, of Boulevards.com: "It's a quick and easy way to 'click to a site' via a picture....and eliminates the need to manually spell domain names such as www.siliconvalleyrestaurantweek.com in your smart phone. The younger generation will pick it up easier, because it actually is easier. 

"Back in the day, (of selling digital ads and search) I would remind advertisers who use bus ads to promote their website that 'You can't click the side of a bus and find the domain for your advertising.' Nowadays if they use a QR I would need to rephrase that statement."

Editorial – and billboards – can be scanned to access rich content, such as movie trailers, interviews or video from concerts and shows.  Optimally, the code and call to action  signifies "Get more now" and also  "Store this on your phone before you forget." The number two reason people scan codes is to get additional information. 

Another usage is scanning to access coupons and contests, and to provide a scan to get a text-message, for text-back campaigns and opt-in lists, instead of, say, texting a message to a short code.  QR codes add potential 6% traffic bump. 

2. Adds speed and convenience for consumers 

Once the app is downloaded,  most people we talked to prefer the speed of scanning. Americans who have visited Japan come back with a higher expectation and desire to scan – and the number one factor they point out is the speed.

3. Progressive branding

A number of brands use QR does to add brand cashe. Examples include Chevy Volt, who launched a QR code promotion at the 2011  SXSW.

Since QR codes are digital, local media who use QR codes brand their company as  digital savvy. Promotions benefit from QR placement on Tshirts, tattoos and just about anything you can think of. Adding a code to a business card brands the sales person as digitally forward-thinking, and allows new contacts to place the information in their mobile address book without typing. 

4. Appeals to a highly desirable demographic

While prelaunch tests for Chevy Volt's SXSW promotion showed that only 6% would access the contest via QR code, at the conference, the split for redemptions from QR codes scanning versus typing was 50/50 due to a highly savvy and interested audience. Key demos for QR Code users are tech savvy males (60%) , 34 years old or younger (53%) with a household income of $100,000 (35%). Do consider the demographic when creating campaigns that use codes. 

5. Codes are free 

A variety of sites create codes from URL's on the fly, as many as you want.  A recommended vendor by LMI members who track analytics from codes is  QRStuff.comwho charges just $86  a year for unlimited codes. So there is virtually no downside to adding codes to promotions, especially if you also add a URL or shortcode for the majority of viewers who do not have smart phones and an app reader already downloaded. Do choose a code supplier based on secondary criteria such as analytics and the ability to integrate with a short code.

Cons for QR Codes:  What's the big deal?

1. They are still difficult for most consumers to use

Most of the confusion around scanning QR Codes is about downloading the QR code reader app the first time. That is, users have to choose an app, download an app,then open the app and scan the code (Shopsavvy and Barcode Scanner are common apps for Android, while is for the iPhone the free NeoReader is a popular choice). This limits the market to people willing to go through these steps, and to those who have smart phones. If you are largely introducing QR codes in your market, do include a link to instructions for how to use the codes. One newspaper offered both an online video and published instructions during its first major promomtion. 
After the initial download of the app, however, most users find using the app is faster than typing a long URL, especially with fat fingers on an iPhone while walking around. Phones that comes with scanners embedded seem inevitable.  

But many of the most progressive top people in interactive local media are not yet wowed by the potential. Here's a typical response from from an LMI member who is the head of interactive of a sizeable newspaper group regarding use of QR codes: "No success at this end, some tries – mostly from curious (advertisers). Most don’t realize the chain of events required. i.e. QR Code, good mobile landing page, conversion capabilities on the LP etc… to achieve good results." A note here, we found too many local media companies using free QR codes when an investment of just $86 a year gives full analytics. 

2. The market is too narrow to be effective for a standalone offer

This is the most compelling reason to backburner a major initiative that requires QR codes. As mentioned above, since not all phones are smart phones,  the market is currently very narrow; only 6.2% of mobile users have scanned a QR Code, and only 35% of the market even has  smart phones. These numbers, however, are growing rapidly.   
Because of the narrow market issue, Tapscott recommends that most local advertising campaigns don't require codes and do include additional options - such as URL and ShortCodes.  Consider whether you are using the codes to position your brand as edgey, or whether you really want the conversions. If its conversions, then QR codes at best will only add up to 6% to the response in most cases.

3.  Bad or irrelevant QR code experiences have flattened demand

A key downfall of the early “gee whiz” factor and ease of creating codes free (via hundreds of code creators) is that codes may not add value to consumers who "jump" the download hoops only to access, say, a website...or worse, get stuck in a cumbersome enrollment process.  A MediaPost blogger flamed an advertiser - ironically named SpeedStick -  after  attempt to scan a code for the first time, and landing  e-mobile equivalent of Bosnia. Don't launch a QR code to a web site that is not mobilized or one that requires an even more specialized app. 

Do make the consumer experience worthwhile. QR codes use requires thoughtfulness and creativity. As Tapscott, puts it, “I think that users are looking for a benefit that is “outside” the normal landing page (these should always be mobile optimized) when scanning a QR code. Otherwise, why not simply type in the URL?”   Centro advises national advertisers to "focus on the consumer experience." 

To emulate best practices, do point QR codes towards  rich media experiences unavailable elsewhere (hence Calvin Clien's "unedited" bar code version, or Late Night's John Fallon's secret video), a sexy enter-to-win or a significant discount.

4. It's easier for consumers to type in a URL or text message

Everyone can text, or type in a URL, so why not just use that?  It is true that the adoption rate is in its early stages and so the first time a consumer scans, it is much more difficult. However once the app is downloaded, this problem goes away.

As a blogger on MediaMesh puts it, “while I’m walking down the street, it’s easier to open a browser and peck out a URL than it is to open a app and scan a code. Seriously?”

Again, think about demographics; if the target is 50 women it may not make sense to use codes.

5. Legibility issues

Some companies have adopted  QR Codes-on-everything approach, so QR codes appear in a variety of not so scannable places. Most URL’s on clothing - and, for example, chocolates - don’t scan well, and there are also tiny codes on posters that are just too far away from humans to scan. So in your QR code promotions make sure that a code is large enough to be read by a cell phone at the distance the the user is most likely to be scanning from.  Says Tapscott, “If I’m in the train station and I see a code on a poster that is too high up to scan ...what's the point?“

If it’s a billboard in a public place, the code should be huge. In a point-of-sale situation, do create codes large enough to see amongst competing items, say 4" by 5".  In print, from business cards to magazines, use 1x1 inch, just to be safe. Also, pay attention to value scale;  print codes work in black on white or a very light color such as yellow, and not so well on say 100% red or 80% blue. 

6.  A QR code's URL cannot be changed

The URL associated with a particular code is unique and cannot be changed. So you can change the information on that web page, but not the URL of the page itself. Some coupon software generates a new URL every time the offer changes, so keep this in mind  when creating printed materials and full programs like groups ads for mobile coupons.  Do make sure sales reps understand that the URL is static, and ensure that information on the landing page can change if neccesary. 

7. By the time QR codes scanning is fully adopted, there may be something better

Tapscott notes, "As quickly as QR codes have arisen, there are some that think NFC (Near Field Communication) will ultimately displace QR codes in terms of functionality. It’s also interesting to follow Google’s movements in this space. Regardless of what Google is planning…I think that the attention and discussion around QR Codes and NFC that has been created will ultimately be good for mobile advertising."

Google stopped using QR codes in its onsite decals last month, and is rumored to be developing NFC tap-to-purchase technology. NFC chips read by enabled phones can be embedded in posters or menues, but keep in mind this is a chip not just a printed code, so its more expensive than normal printing, so it is unlikely to replace QR codes anytime soon. 

The advantage of NFC technology is that the readers will be embedded in phones - no downloads required - and can be read simply by tapping the phone.  Our source at NFC says more generalized adoption is only two years out. Japan's universal use of QR codes has been from downloaded apps. 


Most local media companies we talked to are justifiably reluctant to engage a technology with such low current adoption rates, especially for advertising campaigns in which the advertisers are primarily concerned with conversions. Is 6% of the market really worth it?

However, we see a number of successes in very articulated areas, in which QR codes are included but not always required. See these case studies for television and broadcast here and for newspaper companies using QR codes here.  No silver bullets here, but QR codes also free, so have fun with them but understand their limitations. 

One last thought, a Lawyer's Marketing email group where we regularily lurk, is currently discussing whether or not to put QR codes on their business cards. The general consensus was yes, and that anecdotal evidence portends well for the speed of adoption at the merchant level. 

Many thanks this week to all of the people quoted, and the LMI members who shared  their thoughts and initiatives  informally, and  have informed this report. 

Alisa Cromer

The author, Alisa Cromer is publisher of a variety of online media, including LocalMediaInsider and  MediaExecsTech,  developed while on a fellowship with the Reynolds Journalism Institute and which has evolved into a leading marketing company for media technology start-ups. In 2017 she founded Worldstir.com, an online magazine,  to showcases perspectives from around the  world on new topic each month, translated from and to the top five languages in the world.

centro, paul tapscott, mobile, qr codes, qr stuff