Here's the thing about QR codes, they are nerdy. Hey, I'm a self admitting, gadget loving, computer program writing, internet addicted nerd. I've got nothing wrong with nerdy. But lets face facts, QR codes are maybe just a little too nerdy for mainstream, arn't they? There is an old joke in computer science circles (I run with an eclectic crowd, don't judge), it goes like this: there are 10 types of people, those who understand binary and those who don't. The joke, of course, is that 10 is the binary code for 2. Get it? I thought so. Well, the same is true for QR codes. You've probably seen them in the wild. They are little square shapes that almost look like static on TV (there's an analogy whose lifetime is near an end). Like the binary joke, when you look at a QR code you either know what to do with it, or you don't.

The idea of QR codes is a powerful one. Think of them as a token of sorts, or a missing link, to bridge the real world and the online world. You can scan a QR code with a smart phone and it will link you to a page or video or social media site. It's pretty clever. It is not surprising they have become the darlings of tech savvy marketeers. For once, here is a technology they can be in front of rather than playing catch up; add to that the idea that they are very trackable, just like custom web links. Proving ROI is virtually built in. None of that is a bad thing.  There are some neat applications for QR codes; more on that later.

Here's the challenge. I'm willing to bet even most smart phone owners are on the outside of the binary joke. That is, most folks simply do not know what they are. That leaves enterprising marketeers with two options. Alienate a large, nay, significant majority of your audience or explain how this nerd fest of a graphic works.

Consider this example from a local Virginia paper:

The names have been obscured to protect the innocent. So here is the breakdown. In the middle there is this funny little picture. In fairness that is not a QR code, it is a Microsoft Tag, but the rest is the same. the ad shows a picture of an phone with a tractor beam pulling the picture in...I think? The mice type copy says: "download app at gettag.mobi\ scan tag with phone to go to www.<nameobscured>.com website."

Here is the process for those who are playing along at home:

  1. while reading the paper, get phone out
  2. go to App Store or microsoft site
  3. find app
  4. download free app
  5. enter password
  6. wait
  7. launch app
  8. take picture of funky image
  9. their website loads

Let me offer an alternative:

  1. open web browser
  2. type in URL
  3. their website loads

Perhaps I am being unfair and beating up on a local business's use of new technology. That's not my intent at all. My goal is the same as theirs, let's connect this physical medium of a news paper with a richer, interactive, two-way, online world. Using a 2D barcode (thats the technical term) like a QR Code or MS Tag is a pretty novel way to do it. Again, the problem is that the barrier to entry is just too high. They are too nerdy, even for me. I'm not alone either. I did a fairly unscientific informal sample and showed 10 people a QR code and asked "do you know what this is, and would you know what to do with it and how?" Most of my audience recognized that "people with iPhones could do something" with them. Only two people knew you scanned them with the camera. No one knew how you'd go about doing it. Every person surveyed had a phone with a camera and the theoretical capability of interacting with a QR code. Most of them have Facebook pages and are generally proficient with the web.

So why might you use a QR code? Lets look at some valid reasons to jump through all those hurdles. Some URLs can be long and cumbersome. For example, the average YouTube URL looks like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2ZbuetZbI8 . Notice the capital letters and numbers, those all matter. Not an easy thing to type in, especially on a mobile phone. Facebook pages can have a similarly complex URL structure as do links to the iTunes music and app stores. URL shortening, there's one use. Verification of time and place is another great example. Google Places offers free large format window decals for businesses which include QR codes. I've seen them displayed near hostess stands in restaurants. The idea is that you might scan the QR code on your way out and leave a review on Google's review page. Kinda neat. However, the Achilles heel remains. Is it worth capturing a fraction of your total potential audience? In fact, what about custom URL shorteners? bit.ly offers bitly.pro where you can create your own fancy short URLs. Short URLs make it easy to take a YouTube link from cumbersome to something memorable and short like http://daws.in/robotairplane (daws.in, because its as close as I could get to Dawson.) Finally, it is worth reading this Mashable article regarding Richmond's own Martin Agency's aesthetically pleasing, and thanks to QR Codes, functionally enabled advertisements for the Virginia Museme's Picasso Exhibit.

There are some healthcare uses worth considering. You know those racks of pamphlets in doctors' offices? The ones like "so you have a sinus infection..." What about a virtual pamphlet display with QR Codes for common diagnoses? Scanning each one could take customers to videos of their own physicians talking about those conditions, their treatment and diagnosis. What about partnering with a local farmer's market to promote healthy foods? You could have a little health system logo next to a QR Code in front of broccoli. When people scan it they get a video of the farmer talking about how it was grown, a chef showing how to cook it and your wellness staff talking about the benefits of eating it.

See what I mean? Its a love hate thing. In the end, I'm afraid QR codes and I are a nonstarter. The link between real and online is important. But right now the geek-fu required for entry just feels too high. Although, hope is on the way. There are rumors that QR Code scanning functionality may become a built-in feature of smart phones. That means no special apps to download, just swipe your phone and presto. There is also the promise of a technology called Near Field Communications, or NFC. Think of it like a wifi network, only one which operates a few inches away, not across buildings. NFC is similar to those credit cards you can tap agains the gas pump at some locations. You could just tap your phone against something with an NFC chip. Again, no downloading required.

What do you think? Are you using QR Codes? Am I mistaken about their value? Have any great examples of their usage?

Appendix:

Review of QR code scanners for iOS (iPhone and iPad)