Marketers often ask why QR code technology for mobile phones (and other 2D barcode tech) hasn’t made it to the mainstream in North America. There have been a few notable efforts, some of which are still ongoing, but for the most part the technology remains esoteric and unused.
There’s a very good reason for this. In North America we don’t need this technology.
Quick Response (QR) codes were used to solve a very specific problem, inputting URLs. In NA, the majority of people who use their mobile phones to do anything more than make calls have a QWERTY keypad. The main reasons this tech took off in Japan and other parts of Southeast Asia are and not in North America are:
1. Carriers there ensured that reader applications were installed on every device.
2. Most phones in those countries didn’t (and still don’t) have qwerty – or equivalent – keypads, so using 2d barcodes as a way to quickly link to a site made sense.
It’s difficult to find data on QR reader penetration outside Japan and Korea, but to be wildly generous let’s assume that in the US it’s 5%. Even if this were the case, the potential reach is far lower than it would be if a URL were used instead.
So why are marketers still intent on forcing this tech on the American public? Recent campaigns by Ford and Ralph Lauren use 2D barcodes with little regard for the implications imposed on would be users. In the case of the ford campaign, users would need to perform one of the following actions before arriving at actual content:
“Simply open your phone’s browser and download the free app at gettag.mobi or text ‘Tag’ to 4Ford. Then follow the directions to scan or snap this tag to see features come to life.”
At the end of this convoluted path is a video, so why not simply print a short URL that links directly to the video or a mobile site where users can watch multiple videos? There’s no good reason.
Given that the same functionality can be achieved with greater reach using a plain URL, use of QR codes as a replacement or supposed shortcut to web-based content adds little value to the campaign. In fact, it likely detracts from it. We don’t have barcode reader penetration in NA, but we do have QWERTY keypads which means inputting a URL is trivial.
There are other uses for 2D barcodes that make sense. In particular, expect to see 2D barcodes deployed as part of a POS redemption mechanism for mobile coupons. For more on this, check out this post on the new Starbucks iPhone app.