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Why QR codes aren't catching on

QR codes eliminate the need for typing a URL on your phone, but you need to have a barcode scanner app installed.

Story highlights

  • Study: Nearly eight in 10 college students had no idea what to do with a QR code
  • 75% of students said they were unlikely to scan a QR code in the future
  • QR codes can be used to spread malware or as part of phishing scams

Quick response (QR) codes -- those two-dimensional barcodes that resemble a checkerboard on LSD -- are appearing more frequently on billboards, magazine ads, business cards, stickers, T-shirts and anything that is used to promote stuff.

But evidence suggests many people don't understand what QR codes are or what to do with them.

You might think that if anyone would know how to use a QR code, it would be college students -- a demographic that is immersed in technology and bombarded by marketing. But a recent study found that nearly eight in 10 college students had no idea what to do with a QR code.

Archrival, a research group that focuses on youth marketing, surveyed 500 students at 24 colleges and universities across the United States. They found that although about 80% of students owned a smartphone and had previously seen a QR code, only about 20% were able to successfully scan the example QR code they were shown.

Furthermore, about 75% said they were unlikely to scan a QR code in the future.

"Why the discrepancy?" wrote Don Aguirre, brand manager at Archrival. "Students simply struggled with the process. Some didn't know a third-party app was needed [to scan the QR code]. Many mistakenly assumed it could be activated with their camera. And others just lost interest, saying the activity took too long.

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"Unless QR codes become easier, more nimble, and can provide content that engenders a more meaningful connection to the brand or product, students will continue to shower them with apathy."

Archrival's research echoes the findings of several other studies involving consumers and QR codes.

Marketers embracing QR codes, for better or worse

Personally, so far I've been mostly underwhelmed by QR codes, too. They seem like a crude hack that just replaces one mobile hassle with another.

The whole point of a QR code is that it's supposed to make it easier for people to use their phones to connect with information about things that they encounter in their environment. That's where mobile typing gets in the way.

Most smartphones and even many feature phones have good enough web browsers and data connections to display a simple mobile-friendly web page, but trying to correctly type a URL on even the best smartphone is a pretty tedious and error-prone activity.

QR codes eliminate the need for typing a URL on your phone, but you need to have a barcode scanner app installed. And then you must take a moment to find and launch that app before you point your phone's camera at a QR code.

And then it's a huge gamble whether the page you'll land on will be useful, interesting, relevant or even mobile-optimized.

And then there are security risks: QR codes can be used to spread malware, or as part of phishing scams.

There are several alternatives to QR codes, but so far none has shown much promise. The bleeding edge involves augmented reality and image recognition; but other options include near-field communications technology (which is being deployed primarily to enable mobile payments), and special phone numbers.

So far, promotional campaigns that rely on SMS text messaging or social media tend to gain more traction with consumers than any other mobile marketing strategy. But these can be intrusive or annoying if not handled carefully.

It may not be until more objects around us are actually "smarter," when the Internet becomes more about things in our environment rather than caches of information that we access through special devices, that we may start to solve some of the problems QR codes are failing to address.

In the meantime, QR codes will continue to flag stuff that most people probably want to ignore.

The opinions expressed in this post are solely those of Amy Gahran.