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.