Scan This Post: What Marketers Need To Know About 2D Bar Codes

2D bar codes are one of the latest “shiny objects” in mobile marketing. And it’s no surprise — with mobile marketing spend increasing and smartphone adoption on the rise, you want to know if it’s time to invest in this mobile marketing tactic. The result?  More and more clients have come to me and said, "I'm working on my QR Code strategy, and . . ."

But in order to answer the questions that come after that statement, I wanted to explore and explain the actual benefits of this tactic (potentially huge), and the actual adoption today (still pretty low).  Here are some of the high-level findings from my research to help you de-code bar codes:

·         2D bar codes have a lot of marketing potential. They can be placed anywhere — allowing you to reach your audience at all stages of the consumer life cycle with targeted information. And they do it efficiently: they connect people with additional content immediately through a scan, require little consumer effort, and can leverage  context to provide more targeted and useful information in the moment.

·         But, consumers aren’t scanning away today. While marketers and companies are starting to dive-in, most consumers aren’t — yet. Adoption increased from 1% last year to 5% this year, and among smartphone owners, penetration is at about 15%. Why isn’t it higher? Because of basic unfamiliarity of what these codes even do, the required step of downloading a 2D bar code reader, and most importantly for marketers to note: disappointing experiences and content.

·         But they will be in the future.These hurdles are common among new tactics and technologies. Familiarity will increase as these codes continue to pop-up in print ads, on buses, on billboards and product packages — and marketers can help with this by offering instructions and explaining the value users will get from scanning it.

The good news is that marketers can start piloting these codes at a low cost today to learn the technology, the best content to offer, and to make sure they can offer people user-friendly, valuable experiences. But if you're going to try it, you have to set reasonable expectations to internal stakeholders, clarify internally that this is a test-and-refine-opportunity, and make sure that you're accomplishing an objective and offering real value to the consumer.

For much more detail about each of these points, including the demographics of 2D bar code users, 2D bar code use examples, and factors to take into account while piloting, Forrester clients can check out the full report  “US Marketers: Stay Ahead Of 2D Bar Code Adoption.”

For eBusiness & Channel Strategy Professionals, also see Julie Ask’s report: "2D Bar Codes: Driving Consumers To Purchase."


Will consumers be scanning in the future?

I remember Cue Cat, which was doomed to failure by the fact it needed special hardware. 2D barcodes that work with any cell phone seem to bypass this issue, but there's still another hurdle: What's in it for the consumer.

Too many marketers using QR codes act as if consumers are DYING for an easier way to receive more marketing. "If only there was an easier way for me to see more advertising on this product," is NOT what consumers are thinking. (OF course, you point this out in your blog post, but I think the idea that QR codes must provide "user-friendly, valuable experiences" is lost on too many marketers who only see a way to push more advertising.)

There is nothing magic about QR codes in and of themselves--it's what brands do with them that will spell success or failure. And consumers won't adopt QR code scanning just because they proliferate across products, print ads, posters, bus shelters and the like. It is only when brands use them to advance functional benefits--easy checking in, discounts, helpful mobile applications--that QR codes will succeed.

Given the ability of photo and scanning technology to turn any object (not just a QR code) into a recognizable scannable object (see Google Goggles), I'm not convinced QR codes will pass by before brands and consumers get them right.

True, but....

Hi Augie,

I agree with you that 2D codes are so much more about what comes after the code. The code itself is more like a URL than a true marketing tactic. And while there was much discussion back in the day about the "right" URL, marketers have learned that the best URL won't save a crappy website. And the same is obviously true about a 2D code-- it's the content that matters.

As for scannable objects and image recognition, I admit I'm fascinated by the technology as an early-adopter and general geek. But I think the marketing applications currently suffer from a similar problem that 2D bar codes have. The marketer will have to explain that the image is scannable, how to scan it, and why to scan it. It may even be a trickier problem with just an image because it won't need a symbol in which to embed the data, so it wouldn't necessarily have a symbol on it to say to the consumer, "Hey, scan me!" And if a symbol was developed, wouldn't that serve one of the main purposes that a 2D bar code has now? Perhaps the 2D bar code is training users to try to scan printed materials and other images, in which case, they could be a stepping stone to ubiquitous scanning.

So far there are lots of questions and few answers. It'll be interesting to see how consumer behavior develops as smartphones continue to penetrate the market and scanning becomes more natural to a wider set of users.

As always, thanks for your comment!

Reminds me of another failure...

QR codes have been around for quite a while now - ever since the days of the Nokia and Windows Mobile domination. This article reminded me of the bluetooth 'hotspot' advertising locations that used to be around (some may still even exist today). The idea was to pair your mobile phone with an advertising sign/kiosk to receive free ringtones, wallpapers and like. They've since been replaced by QR codes but in the end, if I want product/brand information, what's wrong with just typing in a website address into your mobile browser? Provided that the link isn't more than say 20 characters long, I think that QR codes just over-complicate things.