Enough with ugly squares

Towards the end of the year I usually find myself doing lots of “the future of…” presentations. This year, unsurprisingly, the big focus is on mobile, tablets, NFC, and Big Data. I almost never mention QR Codes, but I always get asked about them. – “Will NFC replace QR Codes?” “Should we still be using QR Codes?” ” Does anyone in the real world actually scan them?”

The Telstra Smartphone Index in June 2011 reported that only 1% of Australian smartphone internet users regularly use QR codes to access sites. That’s compared to 23% who type a URL to their browser, and 16% who search. Yet it’s hard to find a print or outdoor ad without them these days. So why are we still seeing QR Codes everywhere?

The reason is relatively simple – when marketers and agency types walk around seeing these big ugly squares everywhere, they seem to be struck with a fear that they’re getting left behind. I’m yet to meet anyone who’s used QR codes and can actually put forward any sort of compelling data showing that they work. (If you have any, please comment and prove me wrong!)

The problem with QR Codes is that they only serve one purpose – they’re a marketing device. And this is why they will never succeed. It’s like trying to convince people to install a landline that can only be used for telemarketing. Or getting an email address on the basis you’ll get offered non-stop amazing financial incentives from random Nigerian princes.

People in the advertising world too often forget that the best they can do is latch on to existing behaviours – particularly when it comes to technology. This unwavering belief that we can create behaviour, and convince people to whip out their phones, download an app, and scan some ugly computerised glyph isn’t just misguided, it’s altogether imperious.

And it’s this problem that is also why NFC will likely succeed (when Apple get around to actually building it into the iPhone). The technology will become ubiquitous through payment and loyalty systems. Only then will there actually be a reason to use it to create interesting, interactive, and creative communications with it. Until then, enough with the ugly black squares already.

- November 2011