The Jury’s Out on QR Codes

Theresa Walker is a senior editor at CURRENTS. She covers the communications and marketing beat for the magazine.

I began thinking about the need to include a CURRENTS article about QR codes after I started seeing them pop up more frequently last year in the catalogs I received in the mail, on tourism ads in Washington, D.C., metro stations and in the pages of The Washington Post. (This Poynter Institute article about using QR codes to drive traffic to newspaper content offers useful tips for anyone looking into using QR codes.)

I came across some interesting and not very user-friendly examples. Sears ran one in TV commercials during its holiday ad campaign last December and is, to my mind at least, still the most notably useless example. I paused my TV and tried several times, unsuccessfully, to scan the code. I don’t know how many other people made an attempt, but I can’t imagine that there were too many.

A couple of months later, I saw an interesting newspaper ad for a Picasso exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. A portrait of the artist was rendered entirely in QR codes. It was a cool concept, but it wasn’t as easy to scan as I thought it would be. And once the code successfully scanned, it was a bit of a letdown because it took me to the VMFA’s regular website rather than a mobile website or video. I felt kind of like Ralphie in the movie “A Christmas Story” after he successfully decoded the message with his new Little Orphan Annie decoder ring.

These and other experiences with QR codes led to the article “QR Codes: Use Them … or Lose Them?” in the October Issue of CURRENTS. The article offers two points of view on the topic.

Pro—Chuck Cunningham outlines the experiences of the University of Guelph, one of the first institutions in Canada to use the codes in student recruitment. He explains how, through the use of QR codes, the university successfully created a media buzz designed to raise the university’s profile and, ultimately, increase the number of applicants to Guelph.

Con—Cassie Dull of the Park Tudor School in Indiana, on the other hand, believes that while QR codes have great potential, they currently aren’t that valuable because they:

  • are too much work for users and don’t provide enough value.
  • need a strong message behind them to make them effective; they are just a tool and require a strong communications plan.
  • are trendy but there’s no real proof that they make a difference.

With so many available methods for generating free QR codes, it’s easy and inexpensive to test whether they will work for your institution’s marketing efforts or campaign before deciding to go the route of having a QR code specially designed for your campus.

Is your institution considering using QR codes? How have you already used them? Let us know how you’re using—or thinking about using—QR codes and whether you think they’re here to stay (or not) by posting a comment.

3 responses to “The Jury’s Out on QR Codes

  1. I’ve come down on the “anti” side of the debate and don’t think they will be around much longer. As a utility, they need to be dead simple, and there’s a little too much overhead associated with downloading the necessary software, finding a code that MIGHT be useful, getting your phone, launching the app, scanning the code, capturing the image correctly, and then waiting for the mobile browser to launch….usually to discover (as you say above) that the site isn’t even optimized for mobile, or that the content is not unique or useful.
    I also think the codes are visually ugly, despite cursory attempts to create “designer” codes. Andrew Gossen guest blogged about this topic (on the “pro” QR side) on my site recently, but I don’t share most of his views about their usefulness: http://www.alumnifutures.com/2011/08/design-qr-gossen.html

  2. We have seriously considered using QR Codes, but decided that not only did Lynchburg College need (before implementing their use) as has been said, “a strong communications plan,” but we also needed more analytics on the use of smart phones. We are in the process of testing our new mobile site and are almost ready to formally launch it. We have looked hard at the analytics on smart phone use on our traditional website. Before we begin to use QR Codes, we want to make sure we know why we are using them and what we expect to accomplish. We want to be innovative but we also want to be smart.

  3. I think your title is right on. Every innovation starts out as trendy. To say there’s no proof they work just means that the innovation curve hasn’t hit a critical mass yet. Thus, the jury is out. Every social media tool has started out that way. The best advice on QR codes is to keep an eye out for innovative ways to use them. The success will always come via people, not from the tools. And the comment that they are hard for users is a misnomer–there is a learning curve in all new technology. Look at the data-smart phone use, especially to access the web–is skyrocketing. To ignore the technologies that tag along on that journey is a mistake. While the “jury is out”, the innovators will play and when the tool reaches a critical mass, those that were watching will engage or be left behind. It’s just another tool, not a magic pill.

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