Rockin' the QR Codes: Force or Fad?

Okay, be honest. How many times today have you stopped, whipped out your smartphone, and scanned a QR code? If you did, did this Quick Response code take you to a mobile enabled website with information you could use or were interested in? Or did it take you to a standard desktop-based company website? Or did it take you anywhere? According to a June article in Business Week, only five percent of Americans scanned a QR code during a three month period last year.

QR codes are losing their luster and it is their own fault. They too often have been slapped onto the wrong things (billboards, race cars, bananas), conveyed useless or confusing information, been printed or designed improperly, or offered little value to the people who bothered to use them.

But wait! Weren’t they cutting edge technology? Well, they did provide a new avenue to drive users to the Web and they could hold 100 times more information than a bar code. The problem was that many users just didn’t know how to use them effectively, even though they used them everywhere.

It is doubtful that the little Japanese company that invented the QR code to improve inventory tracking of car parts had any idea that they would become so widespread or used in such varied ways. Despite the waning interest in some quarters, QR codes still have many practical uses. They may even become more widespread as technology—such as the Passbook feature on the next iPhone OS—allows storage of QR codes that act as coupons, gift cards, movie tickets, and boarding passes, according to the Business Week article.


How About Printing?

QP columnist John Giles often writes about the proper use of the technology. In his column this month, he counsels: “Make sure the QR code directs the users to something they want. Just going to a mobile website isn’t exciting if the visitors can’t read the information on their smartphones. Good sites usually feature videos, sign-up opportunities, and coupons. They offer something that will keep the visitors coming back and sharing the site with their friends.”

That’s good advice, but what are printers actually doing in the field?

Tim Post at NuGraphics, Etc. in Boston says “From business cards to banners, a growing number of our clients are requesting we add QR codes to their files. It is a surprisingly easy process. Nu Graphics, Etc. specializes in retail and exhibit signage, and QR codes fit well with those projects.”

Design consultant Manny Velazquez at MetaCreative in Houston, TX, says he has used QR codes on business cards and vehicle wraps. “Like anything, they can be overused…but they do have their place, especially when you network at a lot of social events. It’s easier to flash a card with your information and immediately upload all relevant date into your smartphone.”

“I also put them on our business cards for contact information,” says Tim Kirkland, business development director at Octopus MES in Greensboro, NC. “It was a nightmare. The printing company had to play with the sizing and white border and even then, only certain readers on certain devices with certain OS revisions could read it successfully. It was worth the trouble now that it works, but one should allow time to prepare for a printing project containing a QR code and know their end-user.”

Dustin Andrews, owner of 4-State Printing in Joplin, MO, says he has been offering QR codes as an added feature for free on a printed piece as long as he is doing the printing. “So far, I’ve had great response. I just printed a questionnaire for a local business that was sent out as a mailer with a QR code. They had a fantastic response rate compared to the prepaid mail-in survey. So I believe that, depending on how you use them, they are a very good feature that should be on most—not all—printed pieces. That being said, I think they are, for the most part, a fad that will be phased out with a newer, better something in the next few years or so.”

Dan Huntingford, owner of SOS Printing in Seattle, agrees. “We’ve printed quite a few in the past couple years, but it seems to me it’s a fad that has pretty well fizzled out. I’m no longer seeing any interest. Of course, the problem is, locally, that no one really knows how to implement them and there is no profit for doing so. People seem to have gone back to more traditional promotions.”



According to the Business Week article, there is some indication that QR codes are indeed falling out of favor with the advertising community. It quotes one source as saying advertisers’ initial enthusiasm has tempered and that only 15 percent of his clients still use QR codes. One survey found that QR codes appeared in only 8.4 percent of magazine ads during the last quarter of 2011. On the other hand, they are being used more and more often at trade shows, POP displays, galleries, museums, medical facilities, and other such venues.

QR codes have never been the only player in the game. Microsoft Tags were once major competitors, but seem to be fading. Also, there are other technologies such as near field communication (NFC) that could horn in on the QR code’s turf. At drupa, Ricoh introduced Clickable Paper technology, a cross-media service that lets users point iPhone or Android smartphones at any printed surface that is Clickable Paper enabled and receive related online content.

Whether or not QR codes are here to stay or are destined to be supplanted is really not the question because, as I heard one printer recently comment, “It’s not about the technology, it’s about the message.”