Never rely on QR Codes

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QR Codes are not dead, but they are far from thriving

This year marks the twenty-third anniversary of the QR CODE, a scannable matrix barcode that efficiently stores data and makes it easy to share. It also marks the twenty-third year various corners of the marketing industry have claimed the QR code would soon revolutionize the way we market, boost consumer engagement, and all-round make a major impact on the way brands approach promotion moving forward.

The thing is, in all of those twenty-three years there have been very few cases where QR Codes appeared to make any kind of notable impact whatsoever on a major marketing campaign. As recently as 2012 there were reports claiming that 97% of consumers had no idea what a QR Code even was, and in 2013 a separate report revealed that only 21% of American smartphone users ever scanned a barcode. Of that 21%, only 2% reported doing so on a regular basis.

In theory, QR Codes are great, but in application they rarely live up to their potential. The ability to scan QR Codes is not something that comes pre-installed on most smartphones. Users have to take it upon themselves to download an additional app, which they then need to keep around — and remember to use — until they come across a code. And even if they get that far there may be additional steps still to accessing the content the barcode contains, which can make for a frustrating user experience.

The best case scenario for QR Codes is that they allow for access to something so appealing that consumers will go out of their way to use them. Ideally, you only make a few, and the ‘hunt’ for access becomes part of your marketing campaign. Unfortunately, the fact most consumer are unfamiliar with the codes and how to use them makes the likelihood of this scenario playing out extremely unlikely.

All that said, there are a few success scenarios, though mostly for large (global) brands. Since consumers do not typically hunger for QR Codes, the best approach tends to be in making them impossible to avoid. A company like Taco Bell, for example, could easily generate a QR Code they then add to every cup of soda they sell. This gets the code in front of millions without making consumer change their routine. It’s likely only a few thousands will actually use the code, but still — at least people see it.

And that is the advantage bigger brands have over most artists and record labels: The numbers game. Bigger companies can afford to generate millions of QR Codes in hopes of getting several thousand people to use them. You, on the other hand, should be investing your time in effort in far less risk/chance intensive ventures.

You don’t need gimmicks to make people give a damn about your music, and no matter how you spin their abilities QR Codes are a gimmick. Be real, make yourself available, and people will engage.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.