Thought Leadership

The Rise and Stall of QR Codes: It’s All About Value

Share this!

Lately, I’ve run across a few articles — and more than a few social media buffs — who are wondering aloud why QR (Quick Response) codes are not the runaway success that many predicted when they first started making their appearance on the social media landscape.

Case in point:  a survey by comScore Inc., a digital measurement firm, found that in June 2011 about 14 million U.S. mobile users, or only about 6.2 percent of the total mobile audience, scanned a QR code on their mobile devices.

So why don’t more people engage with those stylish little black-patterned boxes that are cropping up in advertisements, billboards and even on business cards everywhere? When I ask this question, the standard responses tend to be: complexity of use, uncertainty as to what the user will get back, or a simple lack of understanding about what QR codes are really designed to do.

While the specifics of those answers are important, there’s a bigger point looming here — that the long, slow road to adoption of any tool or technology really ties back to fundamental rules of good public relations and marketing. Social media may be relatively new, but its guiding principles are as old as the hills.

Here are two such principles that, in my opinion, will govern the success of QR codes and other emerging technologies and determine whether they will rise — or stall.

  • Content is (still) king. It’s becoming increasingly evident that social media — far from diminishing the importance of content, as some feared in the early days — actually accentuates the importance of content. Rather, it’s the context that is so easily lost. There is often so little context (such as length, background and supporting details) in social media marketing and communications that, now, more than ever, the content has to do the job alone. That 140-chracter headline you just tweeted has to speak for itself.
  • Deliver content clearly and quickly for maximum impact. Media that doesn’t deliver content clearly and quickly may be adopted slowly. One of the challenges with QR codes is that users don’t always know what content they’re going to get when they engage. It can be anything from a Web site to a new app to information about a new product or service. That little black QR code box isn’t a window — it’s a door, and the user isn’t always quite sure what’s on the other side. But, as the content delivered through QR codes becomes increasingly refined, targeted and valuable to users, consumers may become more confident about walking through that door.

  • A communications medium is only as good as the technology that supports it. My colleague, Dale Cressman, Ph.D., a Brigham Young University journalism professor and social media expert, observes that the mechanics of using QR codes remain a little clunky. He explains:  “First you have to have a smartphone, but even then you can’t just point the camera and shoot. You have to download the app and activate the app every time you want to scan a code.”

Cressman goes on to make an important point: “The technology is there. But either the deliverable has to be perceived as so valuable that the technological inconvenience is worth bearing, or the technology has to become simple enough so that people will seek out the deliverable.”

In terms of where QR codes are going from here, I believe that if their technological utility and benefit to consumers eventually catch up with each other, they’ll continue to gain momentum. But they will need to lead with value — compelling content, unique opportunities, time and money savings, ease of use, etc.  That’s one old-media fundamental that hasn’t changed.

Do you think QR codes have lived up to their hype? Have your say in the comments below.

Susan Balcom Walton, APR, serves on the PRSA Board of Directors and is the associate chair of the department of communications at Brigham Young University.

About the author

Susan Walton, APR, Fellow PRSA


  • Quote: “So this is the future of QR Codes in the West. They may generate curiosity or local publicity at the moment but QR Codes on real estate signs, business cards, product packaging etc., are not going to increase sales just because they are present. QR Codes that provide deep discounts, free samples, exclusive content etc., may increase sales but the number of scans and conversions will depend on the value of the offering.”

  • My initial problem with QR codes is that they aren’t aesthetically pleasing. They are a big, black pixelated square that are just plain ugly. Also, when you scan the QR code, it can possibly start an automatic download onto your device. There could be adware, spyware, or who knows what, attached to that download. I certainly wouldn’t click anything on the internet that could harm my computer, so I am not going to scan a mysterious QR code and hope for the best.

    • The issue of potentially automatically
      downloading spyware or adware when using QR codes is a very interesting
      point. I’m not sure many marketers or consumers have considered this,
      but if they have, that may be leading to the relatively slow adoption
      rate of QR codes, despite all of the hype. 

      The issue of potentially automatically downloading spyware or adware when using QR codes is a very interesting point. I’m not sure many marketers or consumers have considered this, but if they have, that may be leading to the relatively slow adoption rate of QR codes, despite all of the hype. 

    • I understand your point of view. However, would you instead open an email from an unknown sender or click any any random website? QR codes are no different, but if an advertiser chooses not to disclose their true intentions,I would not respond any form of  ads they create. Nevertheless, QR codes or any other methods of advertisements are only as good as the advertiser’s ethics.

  • My big problem with QR codes is that many times, the website that is brought up when I scan a code is not mobile friendly. If I’m on the go, I want an easy to read, easy do discern website to get the information quickly and easily. If I’m looking at their full size website, well, that’s useless to me!

    • You nailed one big issue here. Use of QR codes without realizing that people only scan QR codes on their mobile device, and they want to ‘snack’ not have a buffet…
      And a QR code follows a call to action. So a plain QR code is meaningless, unless there is a clear call to action, like ‘scan this QR code to …… ‘.
      There is so much more to do with QR codes (i.e. check 

      • Thanks Derrick, you’re absolutely right. If I can enter into a drawing or receive a special discount offered only to those who scan a specific QR code, well then I’m more apt to scan it! If scanning the QR code brings me to a plain website that anyone can access, then I won’t waste my time. 

    • Good points Jarrod. The codes do allow graphic customization, — Macy’s did a great job incorporating one into their star this year. As you pointed out though, the end destination is critical to a successful campaign.

  • I love the concept of QR codes and I have used them in campaigns. Most of my clients don’t understand them, at least not in the context of a campaign. Another huge problem is the technology itself. Even a well-conceived campaign breaks down if the person scans the code and it takes so long for the info to come up that all we’ve really accomplished is to frustrate the customer. In part, that can be addressed with good, appropriately formatted content, but it also has alot to do with the specific scanning device and we can’t control that.

  • I have definitely seen more and more QR codes, especially as I shop for Christmas presents. But I have noticed that the majority of people I talk to either don’t know how to use them or don’t want to take the time to learn. I love QR codes. The app easily stores QR codes I have scanned, so I can go back to the information. But it is the same group of people using facebook in safari instead of the app, or googling translations of words instead of downloading a translator app that are not catching on to QR codes. There cannot be hype without the following. 

Leave a Comment