The Stupid Question: Does Anyone In Australia Actually Use QR Codes?
In the olden days, advertising needed to be ‘quick’. That is, simply glancing at the ad needed to tell its target audience instantly what the point was.
These days, consumers use digital devices to navigate a vast terrain of information, so calls to action have accordingly grown more sophisticated. Almost every campaign has its own mini-site and ‘viral’ element: more stuff to flesh out the concept.
For some years now, The Enthusiast has been hearing excitable things about 2D barcodes, also known as QR (quick response) codes. The latest was a viral campaign for Bosch fridges in which realistic-looking cuts of dinosaur meat were sneaked into supermarket meat chillers. To find out how the company claimed to keep even the oldest meat fresh, shoppers could scan a QR code on the label.
This is actually a pretty old technology, first developed in 1994 in Japan. And while 73.5 per cent of Japanese mobile users had tried QR codes by 2005, it has taken until recently for hand-held 3G handsets in Australia to be widespread enough to make them useful.
While a traditional bar code is limited to 20 digits, a QR code can contain up to 4,300 alphanumeric characters. The square graphics look like a cross between an alien barcode and an old-school arcade game element. If you have an internet-enabled phone, you can use it as a ‘scanner’ to decode the information stored in the QR square and take you to a website that tells you more. Here’s a simple demo.
And the potential uses are pretty exciting. Instead of ephemeral business cards, you can give your contacts a card bearing your own personal QR code, so your contact details are instantly in their phone. In higher education, QR codes can allow students to subscribe to RSS news feeds, to access library catalogue information, and to record when they submit assignments.
The main barrier to using QR codes in Australia is a slow take-up of the code readers. Historically, many Australian 3G mobile users have tended to stick with the multimedia content provided by their own carriers; it took the mainstreaming of the iPhone to popularise the idea of the mobile ‘app’: a downloadable, stand-alone mobile application.
In 2008, Telstra announced it would pre-package a QR code reader with its NextG mobiles. The result was that many Australians still have the idea that you can only scan QR codes if you’re with Telstra. Further complications arise in finding an app that will work with your handset. This Gizmodo Australia post gives a sense of the proliferation.
Producers of digital content have also found QR codes to be full of logistical difficulties. In 2008 and 2009, the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney experimented with using QR codes on its exhibition labels, so visitors could instantly access more information about the objects they’re interested in. However Seb Chan, the museum’s head of digital technologies, encountered practical issues with the size of the codes, reflections and lighting interfering with image capture; and the fact the museum’s website was not optimised for mobile phones.
By May 2010, Chan had decided to replace QR codes with shortened URLs. “My gut feeling is that these get around the application requirements and the scanning and light issues of QR codes,” he wrote, “and whilst they may not attract ‘curious’ visitors, they should be obvious enough for those visitors who really do want to ‘know more’.”
Competing technologies are also threatening to kill QR before it really gets going in Australia. Microsoft’s proprietary Microsoft Tag 2D barcode eliminates some of the logistical problems with QR codes, plus it’s colourful and y’know, prettier.
However, Antony McGregor of QR startup QMCODES argues that his company’s Q-Lytics service has ironed out some of the QR technology’s difficulties. And Dean Collins of tech consultancy Cognation favours QR codes because they’re free and will last, as opposed to a proprietary system that can become either defunct or expensive.
Augmented reality is the other new interactive marketing buzz technology. It can involve any virtual digital elements superimposed onto a tangible landscape in real time, but in its simplest and most useful form, AR is like an annotated version of Google Street View.
You can download various apps that let you view your current location through your phone’s camera while additional information is overlaid on the real scenery – ATMs, hard-to-find bars, historical buildings, you name it. There’s even an iPhone app that lets you visualise how things you’re shopping for will look in your house.
All this stuff makes QR codes seem like quaint relics. But here’s the thing – QR codes do work. Last September, mobile marketing agency Insqribe bragged that when it ran a competition to win a laptop, people could enter either online or by scanning a QR code, and an impressive 25 per cent of entries to the competition came via the code.
Of these entrants, 60 per cent had downloaded their QR code reader through Insqribe – that is, they didn’t already have a code reader installed on their phones. Insqribe argued that these figures disprove the notion that people don’t understand the technology and are unwilling to install the readers.
Around the same time, Publicis’s digital agency, Myne, published some interesting stats showing that the take-up from QR campaigns was similar to SMS keywords (“text VOTE to 1300 BLAH BLAH”), and that while QR users are a minority, they’re an active, curious group who are predisposed to interact with campaigns.
More interestingly, Myne’s data revealed that despite Telstra’s push, users of all the major 3G mobile carriers were well represented among QR respondents – likely because the newer Nokia phones come pre-loaded with QR decoders.
So yes – Australians do use QR codes, but they aren’t a mainstream marketing tool yet. Time will tell whether they’re a fad or a genuinely useful addition to interactive media.
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