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QR codes aren't ready for prime time

Posted by Jason Keith  September 20, 2011 06:00 AM

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Have you heard the term QR code in the past six months? Even if you haven’t, you probably have seen one and didn’t know what it was called.  They’re the very strange looking boxes that you can find on printed advertisements, store windows and even on television.  QR codes are uniquely developed graphics that can be generated to direct someone to information; be it a mobile website, an advertisement, a video or even to dial a phone number. 
QR codes.jpg

“QR” stands for quick response because you can get the information you need more rapidly than with traditional barcodes. All a consumer has to do is equip their iPhone, Android, or other smartphone with a code reader, hold the phone to the code and presto, they are automatically taken where a business wants them to go. 

Similar to social media, QR codes are quickly becoming all the rage in marketing.  As smartphone usage and consumption continues to rise so too will the opportunities for businesses, both large and small, to market to customers via mobile avenues.  But is anyone actually using QR codes, or this another fad that will fade out after a few months?  More importantly, should small business owners consider using them?

Several studies have shed some light on the popularity of QR codes.  One from Simpson-Carter cited that of 794 online respondents, just 36 percent knew what QR codes were, while 11 percent had actually used them.  comScore did a similar study of QR code use and found that 14 million U.S. mobile users (or 6.2 percent of all mobile phones) scanned a QR code in June of this year.  But more importantly, higher income consumers seemed to be scanning, with 54.7 percent of consumers who did scan having a household income of $75,000 or more. 

A few things are now obvious when it comes to QR codes.  First, they should be targeted at a younger demographic of consumers who are doing everything on their smartphones.  Second, that demographic tends to have (and spend) more money, which means if you can convert them the revenue could be significant.  Finally, as smartphone adoption rises so will the opportunity to market to the “mobile crowd.”  Sooner or later every business will have to have a mobile marketing strategy in place to succeed, or at least keep up. 

What that doesn’t mean is that QR codes are ready for “prime time.”  Big retailers like Macy’s, Tommy Hilfiger and the Gap have used them successfully, but the time and effort that it takes to ensure you get a good return on investment is big. And even then, success can be difficult to measure.  For a small business, some of the things you will want to consider to successfully use QR codes include:

  • Whether or not your core (or target) customers fall into the above demographics and are likely to use the codes if you do weave them into your marketing campaigns.
  • You will have to incorporate them onto your storefront, your printed advertising materials or any other place your customers may see something that they associate with you.  That means potentially re-ordering things you have with the code, or revamping your marketing materials to include it.
  • Ensure that you have a mobile enabled site that is easy to navigate and can let the scanner simply and quickly take advantage of a promotion or sale. 
  • Find a way to accurately measure how effective they are and how much mobile traffic they are actually generating. 

Like all marketing vehicles, you have to determine what’s best for you.  But with a (relatively) limited user base as well as adoption rates that are far below those for email, search or even social media, it makes more sense for entrepreneurs to focus on perfecting tried and true marketing methods first.  While QR codes might be a big driver of revenue in the future, right now they’re not quite there yet.      

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About this blog

Jason Keith has been working for and with small businesses in the New England area for more than 10 years, specifically small, micro businesses. Born and raised in Massachusetts and a former journalist, he provides a unique perspective on the issues facing small businesses locally and nationally.To reach him directly email

This is a personal blog. The opinions expressed here are the author's alone.

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