QR Codes: Best. Practice. Ever.

January 12, 2012

QR Codes work well, except when they don’t –  but they can!  Following my New Year’s Resolution to stop doing dumb things (wish me luck), and coming on the heels of multiple successes in which QR codes have helped my clients win new customers, I offer herewith my take on the value of QR codes.

What’s Cool QR code fanfoundry icon

I love QR Codes and all 2-dimensional (“2D”) codes for two reasons.   First, they help to combine the best of the physical world with the best of the digital world.  Second, they make life easier by eliminating the need to memorize, type, or otherwise manually translate a URL in order to render content digitally.  The highest use of 2D codes is to bridge an excellent real world experience to an excellent online experience.

As of this writing, however, we are in a place where their use is not widespread, so be aware of situations in which your printed content and your online content probably should not substitute and, rather, might need to be a bit redundant.   Each version must still stand on its own, since the vast majority of people are not yet acclimated.

Marketers love QR codes because they make interaction with the physical world clickable and, therefore, measurable.  I get to do more of what I love, too: obsess about large CRM data sets, mining and combining it to detect the faint signals of user behavior that will help satisfy more people.  Everybody wins!

What’s Broken – Why QR Codes Disappoint

According to Forrester Research, however, those who do click on QR codes – primarily young, affluent males – generally hate them.  This is mainly due to the bumbling mis-steps of marketers.

Firstly, QR codes are ugly – – although plenty of people have found ways to fix that (read on).

Secondly, many people are confused about how to scan them.  This is exacerbated by the walled gardens created by competing companies.  Microsoft (just one example) has its own unique 2D code technology, which requires its own unique reader app.  How lovely.

Third: the various free downloadable apps required to read QR codes don’t all function the same way.

Last and worst: user disappointment.  Simply being redirected to the same byzantine website available via large screen device is uninspiring, to say the least.  People typically avoid browsing websites on a small phone screen, so why use a QR code to force them?  Effective QR codes don’t link to ordinary websites.  Instead, they link to an instantly satisfying, sharable experience – on a par with music, photos and email, or content that is uniquely useful wherever the QR code is displayed.

Try thinking of a QR code as new type of “share this” or “dig deeper” button, a way to augment enjoyment of the real world, and a delightful sharable experience.  That thinking alone should keep you out of the weeds, but to be thorough, here is a list of best practices.

How to Fix It – Turn QR Codes into a Viral Experience

Here are some basic items to consider when contemplating use of 2D and QR codes.

1. Audience awareness.  Again, most people are not acclimated.  Do the obvious: include instructions to help new users engage.  Even savvy users need to be informed on what rewards to expect.  Include a caption below the QR code explaining where it leads.  For some examples, see the last page of this QR Code usage guide I created for a print / QR code campaign promoting an iPhone app.

2. Usage patterns.  If you plan to use QR codes multiple times for multiple campaigns, treat each as its own campaign – complete with strategy, goals, success measures, etc. Then, for each instance, caption each code with the URL, app instructions, Call to Action and reward info. Set the stage for fulfillment by setting user expectations before they scan your code. See the example linked in section 1 above.

3. Size and placement.  Your 2D code must be of sufficient size, placement and proximity to be easily scanned. This excludes TV (too fleeting), subway (no wireless signal means no way to access the online content) and Billboard (too distant; depending on which reader software you use, your own pulse may cause your handheld phone/camera to shake too much to reliably scan the code).  Ideal: printed material or flat surface, within arm’s reach. Up close and personal.

4. Visual Appeal.   You can beautify a QR code, either through free experimentation, or for a price using a reputable designer.  It’s not just a nice touch, it’s also a branding opportunity, so we can expect this beautification trend to increase.  Whereas the lowly barcode has faded like a footnote into the borders of package labels, the comparatively prominent physical placement of a QR code could harm the beauty of your content or its location – a slippery slope, indeed.  Who wants a future where a physical, beautiful world is obscured by electromechanical codes?  Fine for robots, not for me.  Moral: beautifying your QR code makes it buzzworthy and increases sharing.

5. Mobile-optimized.  Create an experience that is based on portability, location, SMS, sharing, or instant fulfillment and feedback – anything but an ordinary website.  The destination content must be consumable on a mobile device and, preferably, advance the user toward fulfillment of the promise stated or implied in the printed context of the QR code.

6. Convenience.  Think: Is a 2D code the fastest, easiest and/or only way to access the content, share it, and/or fulfill some need?  If so, great; go for it.  If not, think about other ways to deliver content more effectively.  Again, an ordinary website, not mobile-optimized, is not a value-add experience and not a fulfilling one.  Please stop that.

7. Engagement.   Make it memorable.  Reward users, rather than disappoint them. Make your destination content instantly useful and satisfying.  Include share buttons so your audience can tweet, email, post and rave about the cool experience you provide.  Give users an experience that makes them feel connected, excited, curious, interested and productive.  Want viral?  Do that!

My take on QR codes: end of a fad!  They are here to stay.  QR codes and 2D codes can help you create a satisfying customer experience and, done well, convert sales.


Why We Buy: the Science and Gamification of Loyalty

July 11, 2011
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Resized, renamed,...

Image via Wikipedia

Gamification is not just playing games online.  It involves an understanding how the science of game mechanics can motivate us to achieve our goals.

Being a Fan Foundry involves applying principles of human motivation.   Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Need” suggests that once our basic food, clothing and shelter needs are met, we are free to satisfy higher level needs like belonging, learning and self-actualization.  We humans are a constantly striving bunch.

Sales and Marketing professionals have long studied Maslow, B. F. Skinner and others to learn how to recognize and interpret “buy” signals, improve the buyer experience, increase qualified leads and convert more sales.   Whether you are in retail, e-commerce, enterprise sales, education, politics, contract negotiation or consulting, a review of some basic principles might help you discover ways to  improve your results.

In this upcoming series of “Why We Buy” articles, we examine the science and review real world examples of their application, so you can consider how they may fit your own business challenges.

Use the “Keep in Touch” button (right sidebar, top) to receive monthly notices of upcoming installments in this series.

“Why We Buy” Topics (click live titles to visit articles; more to come)

  • Default (path of least resistance or effort)
  • Sunken Cost (good money after bad)
  • Aspiration (status seeking)
  • Achievement
  • Challenge
  • Reward
  • Progress tracking
  • Competition
  • Pride (emotional investment)
  • Reciprocity (tit for tat)
  • Status – (gain/loss)
  • Gratification (delayed or immediate)
  • Reinforcement (thanks, BF Skinner)
  • Resource Slack (tomorrow never comes)

More to come!

Related Articles:

Gamification: How Competition is Reinventing Business, Marketing and Everyday Life (Mashable)

Engaging Patients with “Gamified” Mobile Care (Healthcare IT Solutions / Perficient)

Gamification is Bullshit (Persuasive Games)

Persuasive Games:  Exploitationware (Ian Bogost on Gamasutra)


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