I remain a QR code skeptic – here is why

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I am probably one of the world’s greatest advocates for anything mobile, except for one thing. QR codes, mobile barcodes – call them what you may.

You see, in my eyes if you put a barrier in the way of a consumer redeeming something, or using a new technology then it will never really take off.

I have yet to post my thoughts on NFC (near field communications), but with the announcement that the new Blackberry phones will have NFC built in, and Apple flirting with the idea it, then is only a matter of time before this becomes pervasive in new smartphones, just as GPS is now in all new smartphones.

QR codes sound great, however when your target audience has to actually find or download a reader to decode them, and even then it is a hit and miss affair, you know uptake will be low.

A recent QR experience has lead me to write this post.

I was walking casually along High Street Kensington yesterday, and spied a QR code in the window of a Columbia store, see below.

Try as I might, I could not get the code to read on my smartphone (a latest model Blackberry 9780).  I could not get any closer, as it was in their front window, so I was doing everything that a normob (normal mobile user) would do.

I even tried zooming in etc etc – it would just not read.  So this mobile campaign (when executed in their front window) is a big QR code FAIL

Back in October 2009, Fendi had a full page ad in the times, shown below with a QR code but no explanation of what it was for – was this a (QR) fashion statement or was someone at the agency keen to “try something new”.

The bravest example for use of a QR code would go to Waitrose who produced a TV ad with a QR code visible for the last 2 seconds.

Just think about this for a moment.  Apart from Sky+ing (Tivo etc) the ad, and replaying it, who would be able to get their phone out and point it at the ad for the last 2 seconds of an ad when they did not know it was coming?

I actually used to be a huge fan of mobile barcodes, and in Australia back in 2004, I helped with a trial of 1D (traditional) barcodes sent as an MMS/SMS for redemption at McDonalds.

The technology did not quite scan first time, every time and it was hard to get the traditional barcode scanners to scan the code quickly.

What the trial told us was that if you had to add an extra 10 seconds to the queue time at McDonalds while you scanned a barcode,  it would never really be an option.

The solution?

Clearly, just as it is with SMS, the QR reader application needs to be native – and built into the camera on every phone.  Even a quick menu item to enable QR reader would be 1000% better than a separate app. One day perhaps smartphone camera software will be smart enough to detect and decode QR codes on the fly.

Until this happens, QR codes are a just a sideshow.

What are your thoughts on QR codes? I’m afraid I continue to remain a skeptic.

Footonote: While preparing this post, I scanned the Colombia QR code from the zoomed-in image above on my PC monitor and it worked – but the fact that it did not work first time on the high street will put off normobs from trying this again.

I also tried pausing the Waitrose ad and persevered for a couple of minutes to get the code to scan – then gave up.

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Futurist Keynote Speaker and former IBM Global Managing Partner, Andrew is a popular and sought-after presenter and commentator on issues around digital disruption and emerging technologies. He is a multiple TEDx & International Keynote Speaker. Watch his speaking showreel here, enquire about availability & fees here or listen to his latest Podcast - "The Practical Futurist Podcast" on your favourite app.

Showing 31 comments
  • Dave Olsen

    QR codes are simply too cumbersome. Especially when, at the end of the day, all you’re getting with them most likely are links to web content. We’ve used QR codes for several projects at West Virginia University in support of our marketing efforts and they’ve basically been a dud. For the last two projects we used text messages as well as QR codes to share the web links. Text messages proved to be quite a bit more popular. So people are willing to take action on the prompts in printed pieces to access mobile content, just not with QR codes.

    NFC sounds really nice from an integrated device standpoint but I’m unsure how easy it will be for businesses to implement it in the field.

    More numbers from our recent QR code and text message projects: http://www.dmolsen.com/mobile-in-higher-ed/?p=202

  • Andrew Grill

    Dave, thanks for the comment and I am glad I am not alone here!

    I expect to get flamed later today when I promote this post on Twitter and have the QR-elite tell me how I probably need therapy for this view.

    Simple real-world test is to stop someone in the street, show them a QR code and ask them to scan it. If they do anythine else other than say “let me just pop open my QR reader” then you know QR codes have a problem. Ask them to send a text or even in many cases enter a URL on their browser and they will look at you to say “are you serious, next you will ask if I can make a call and remember to press the ‘send’ button”.

    The most amazing placement for QR codes recently was Telstra in Australia printing them on physical Yellow Pages books.

    Now physical Yellow Pages users are as you know just screaming out for QR codes. Even my parents won’t use the YP book and instead use Google. That means the must be plenty of grans and grandpas out there with their QR readers.

  • simon andrews

    I agree that NFC and things like Goggles will eventually replace QR codes – but right now they have a lot of potential. We shared your frustration that noone has explained them to civilians so launched http://www.QuiteEasyReally.com – a mobile site that explains what they are and links to downloads a variety of readers. Anyone running a QR campaign is welcome to use this site as an explanation
    So the only other thing they need do is make sure the experience resulting from the code is worthwhile

  • Andrew Grill

    Simon, thanks for sharing. I hope advertisers and agencies think about this when planning their next QR campaign.

  • Dan Calladine

    I’m also pretty sceptical of QR codes, and quite a lot of the uses to date have been pretty uninspiring, especially the codes in newspapers and magazines.
    However I was very impressed to see Domino’s Pizza using them as an ordering mechanism on their flyers (in fact the QR code takes you to the mobile app) and I think this is good media use for their target audience.
    Take a look:

  • Dave Olsen


    for what it’s worth, i expected to get flamed a bit by folks in higher education here in the states who love QR codes but it never materialized. maybe more folks are realizing it’s a bad fit and can’t live up to the hype? just wish their were more folks sharing numbers on how their QR codes are performing.

  • Jeroen Steeman

    Hallo Andrew,

    I for one do like QR codes, and can also see why people don’t like them. Because of their ‘free’ open nature, many people are using them without a clue.

    However I should point out that NFC behind a shopfront window will also not work. And if NFC goes for ‘far reach’, then I fear that most consumers will, like is the case with bluetooth, permanenlty switch it off or dissable it to get rid of the marketing noise.

    Each technology, used correctly, has it’s right to be, if it provides added value for consumers.

    Scanning QR codes is stil a choice today 😉

  • Andrew Grill

    Jeroen, good points – and I will put my thoughts together soon about how I can see NFC working well, and also potentially annoying shoppers.

    If I had a £ for each time a conversation around mobile marketing started with “…and you would be walking past a Starbucks…” I would be a rich man.

    Permission based and opt-in methods of location based marketing will succeed – read an article on why I (thought) Foursquare would power ahead at http://lc.tl/4sqftw

    Now I’m not so sure, but I believe for micro-payments via mobile, NFC will be the winner.

  • Terence Eden

    I’m one of those QR Fanatics – but I agree with many of your points. A craply executed advert is crap – no matter if it is NFC, QR, or radio.

    Although I would like to see QR scanners built into phones – like the N95 had – people don’t seem adverse to downloading applications.

    That said, I’ve recently blogged about some verifiable statistics on QR scanning which I’d be interested to see how you interpret.

    Great blog as always.


  • Andrew Grill

    Terence, nice post and a good follow up to my post above.

    What I would encourage advertisers to do is to use short, branded URL on posters AS WELL as a QR code, so that those who can’t seem to scan the QR code on the poster can still find the content via a short URL on a mobile.

    Read Terence’s follow up at http://lc.tl/qrstat

  • Eric Swain


    I agree with your summation but clearly it’s a failure of execution rather than concept.

    As holdovers from the early days of mobile, you and I will both remember the utter failure of the nascent mobile web (the “WAP is crap” era). But I’m sure you’ll agree that that, too, was a failure of execution (retarded by greedy, short-sighted operators and immature tech) rather than concept.

    The concept behind QR codes, where theoretically I can, in one quick motion, be taken to where I want to go (or where someone wants me to go) is much preferable to current alternatives.

    Of course, as you rightly pointed out, the theory isn’t matched by reality. Perhaps it will be one day soon. Or perhaps the concept will be better realised by NFC (or some other approach just over the horizon).

    Oh, and by the way, why was/is Starbucks always the example used for these things?

  • Andrew Grill


    I think Starbucks is used all the time because the stores are ubiquitous (someone once joked a news Starbucks had opened inside a Starbucks) so it’s easy to imagine

    “you’re walking past a Starbucks…

  • Jeff Brown

    QR codes were invented in 1994 by Toyota for inventory tracking. They're used in the far east quite heavily. They've only recently been used here in the states.

    While it certainly would be easier if I didn't have to open and app to scan the code, it's only one step. The reader does the rest. Also, your example of using SMS has the same step involved. I still have to open an app to send an SMS.

    You're example of the Columbia QR code isn't an accurate one. A code that small was not intended to be placed behind glass or at any distance other than right in front of the customer. My guess is that the store owner put it there to show the product, not the QR code. Larger codes can be put in windows for passers by.

    Starbucks uses QR codes with great success.

    QR codes can be used in conjuction with SMS, email, mobile web, etc., not as an alternative.

    I have a feeling you'll change your mind soon. 🙂

  • Andrew Grill

    Jeff, thanks for the comments.

    I think I will stay in the skeptic camp for a while longer 🙂

    Some background & context for you on where my position comes from.

    I’ve been playing in the mobile space since 1990 – when I did some work with Telstra on their AMPS analogue network in Australia.

    In 1996 with Optus, I was on the product development team working on mobile-originated SMS, and we were sending SMS to each other before the rest of the country was able to.

    SMS is a great benchmark to test the validity of new services.

    Yes, while SMS is an “app”, it is built into EVERY phone shipped – even “dumb” phones that have no web browser and can’t download apps can run SMS.

    The person on the street test is important.

    Pretty much anyone that owns a phone can not only send a text, but knows what they are and has already done this before.

    Show a person on the street a mobile barcode/QR code and ask them to scan it and I bet many people will look at you strangely.

    For the same reason that Bluetooth marketing never really took off (if you put a barrier in the way, adoption rates crash).

    You say that “Starbucks uses QR codes with great success” but provide no figures.

    In a similar vein, digital marketers hail a 5% click-through from a banner as amazing.

    What this really means is that it had a 95% fail rate.

    For mobile marketing 5% success rate is great, for a Doctor, a 95% failure rate means jail.

    What I would be interested in would be stats around what % of those that were exposed to a QR code did not follow through vs those that did – ie what the real QR code success/fail rates are.

    If 1% of Starbucks customers used a QR code – that’s still a big number but means 99% ignored it.

    Until the camera in smartphones can automatically recognise and decode QR codes, my professional opinion with all due respect (and with 21 years exposure to a multitude of mobile technologies and campaigns) is that QR codes will remain a “nice to have”.

  • RogerSmolski

    Just as a matter of fact – Starbucks does not use QR Codes.

  • Brendan Quinn

    I have to admit I’m still a sceptic of QR codes although the way social media is moving who knows

  • David King

    Thanks for the insight Andrew, echoes a lot of my own thoughts around QR codes specifically, but I think they could be used well as a response mechanism in conjunction with other options.

  • Dave Marutiak

    The entire field of 2D barcodes is expanding at a furious rate right now, and one only has to look around them here in London to see them showing up on bus adverts, Tube adverts, newspapers, magazines, and (now) phone booth overlays. The pace has noticeably picked up in the last few months and is going to rapidly expand heading into the Olympics.

    I can resonate with people who are frustrated with the lack of transparency on statistics, and I’ve seen it in a lot of blogs. Terence Eden’s point about using general purpose URL shorteners and redirectors is a great way to track many brands that use them. (In just the last month, that would include about 35 of the 40 brands that used them in the local papers.)

    Public statistics posted by both Scanbuy (web.scanlife.com/uk_en) and NeoMedia show the UK as the 5th most active country and rising up the charts. Those numbers don’t begin to reflect the most recent growth and plans for the coming year by leading ad agencies and brands.

    A final note for the thread – there are over a dozen ways to use barcodes, not just sending people to a URL, and there are over a half dozen 2D barcodes, not just QR ones.

  • Dave Marutiak

    Oops – almost forgot to mention a point on the concept of NFC replacing QR codes – there isn’t a chance that the rollout of new hardware can outpace the speed of smartphone rollouts going on. As long as it’s easier to download an application (any of the 30 or so barcode readers in the app stores) than ensure someone has the right hardware and certificate combinations, barcodes will have a significant advantage in market pentration rates. Savvy campaigns will include simple SMS short code support for the smartphones that don’t already have one, and at Scanbuy we also support any camera phone with ubiquitous MMS capabilities for even broader penetration.

  • Andrew Grill

    Dave, so glad you piped in with your view, as you are better placed than most so see both sides of the coin here.

    Thanks for the comment and for allowing me to be a 2D skeptic – but also someone who WANTS them to succeed, so need some industry pushing here. Needs to be as easy as TXT to really take off.

  • @GeoffreyB I hope QR codes take off here. You should read this by @andrewgrill http://lc.tl/qrfail

  • Dave Marutiak

    Regarding the Waitrose ad – Jimmy Fallon did a QR code on TV back in February to introduce a new rap band. He had a much bigger footprint and held it up long enough for people to scan it. He got 20K hits on it (http://bit.ly/foTEf3+)

  • Carol L. Weinfeld

    I remain skeptical until brands demonstrate value and utility through QR codes for consumers. Otherwise, there is no incentive to scan them.

  • Grant

    Not sure I agree, sorry, I don’t agree would be more accurate. OK so QR Codes have been around since 1994! However with major brands utilizing, its only a matter of time before we will all be interacting thru this media. Attaching a movie thru Youtube on your QR Code is massive and a tremendous way to promote your business without the huge costs in production or TV advertising. To throw this away because you seem to be a bit unwise with technology is foolish. The world is being run by younger and younger people. If facebook picks up on QR codes (which I believe they are looking at, then watch this explode beyond Japan). Its sad that you have switched off through 3 bad experiences. In relation to the Waitrose TV advert this seems to me to be building on awareness more than interaction. The mere fact that the symbol is there creating curiosity is enough to stir young minds and old into discovering what the symbol is. Having said all that its vital that the code is used correctly and not as a mindless spam exercise. If you have a business this is a great way to advertise and reward customers for using the format. The more who follow this format the more this can open huge potential to small and big businesses.

  • Tom Messett

    Nice post Andrew and I agree. I recently had a chat with a PR “social media” person who was very keen on telling me how they had integrated QR codes into a new campaign targeted at Mums and other distinctly non tech audiences… I could see that being a tough client report to write!

    I think QR codes are OK when looking at engaging a very tech centric audience but I feel this is a technology that is struggling to find a place outside that (and even within to an extent).

  • Carol L. Weinfeld

    The footnotes explain the problem. If QR codes are too difficult to use, consumers won’t use them. They also often are on an ad and it’s unclear why, until one scans them. Their utility should be evident to the consumer. Time will tell if marketers improve their usage.

  • Alex

    I agree with Andrew.
    The big issue in the age of the smartphone is surely that if you add an unnecessary step, people won’t take it. I understand QR codes, even helped a friend who was using them for some really interesting creative projects (interactive drama on street tiles anyone? ;-). But if you have a smartphone, why not just go to your browser and type a short url? People are doing that all the time. And the QR code is only going to load the browser anyway, or you might already be using it on the bus to read the paper on the way home.

    You’re not going to hold up a phone like a lemon, spend a few seconds looking like a nut trying to focus on a black square under a billboard for an anti-ageing cream, when you could have just typed in “boots.com/offer” or whatever. It’s psychologically unlikely that anyone’s going to bother when it means figuring out: which QR reader app will work, downloading it, leaving current application, going into QR app, … etc etc. Technology that succeeds is generally easy, or removes steps to reward, it doesn’t add steps.

  • Tim Dunn

    Well, the proof of the pudding…

    I’ve run a number of QR campaigns in recent months, and all I can say is, they work. I see regularly good stats, and have spoken to many people in brands who have trialled and adopted for this reason.

    Your opinion of one execution may be that it is poor, but perhaps you are using a bad reader – quality varies – I was able to scan the QR on this page very easily with i-nigma just from your small photo.

    It is true that you do need to do it properly – see http://econsultancy.com/uk/blog/7866-to-qr-or-not-to-qr for a brief guide to this, but having a negative view of new tech developments without taking a view on customer adoption and success from real-life case studies is not a great way to prove new innovations in technology.

    Also look at the stats- http://lc.tl/csqr Comscore is always terrifyingly conservative in their measurements so this is a huge change in customer behaviour.

    I was also a QR-skeptic, but that was 3 or so years ago. The market has now changed and we should be open to that.

  • Andrew Grill

    Tim, I am always happy to be proven wrong.

    My measure is…are normal people doing this.

    For all the QR codes on tube ads, NO-ONE EVER scans them – why?

  • iceman101184

    Hi Ramon,

    Great article. I sense and feel your frustration!! Always good to see that people are paying attention to the data versus following blindly after the other lemmings. 😉 However, that said, I do want to point out that the reason for some of these stats – especially about response rates for qr codes – are NOT due to the technology or even placement, but how the vast majority of marketers are using them. Our research has found that more than 84% of marketers use QR codes incorrectly for engagement. Most do not even point to mobile-friendly content! As such we put together this useful guide for how to “not drop the ball” when using QR codes. We would love if you gave it a once-over and told us what you think.

    All the best,
    Sean Dempsey

  • I am a QR code skeptic as well. The problem with it is not only the technology itself. In most cases the problem is with the marketers. Looks like they don’t think everything through before implementing it. QR code can be effective tool if used properly, but geez there are a lot of bad cases of how they were/are used. To prove my point I have even compiled a list of QR code fails – http://marketingshmarketing.net/post/123828169596/12-epic-qr-code-fails.

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