Can we bury QR codes? (Image from

Can we bury QR codes? (Image from

I’ve been hearing that QR codes are going out of style. Through three experiences with bad QR code management last week, I learned why.

The worst example was Macy’s, a company sophisticated enough to know better. My fiancee and I had stopped by to register for our wedding last Wednesday night to take advantage of a promotion that would give us a chance to win a gift card between $50 and $2,000 (note: we were told that everyone who opened a registry that night would receive a $50 gift card just for showing up, a nice little bait-and-switch by Macy’s). In order to enter, we had to scan a QR code.

I pulled out my phone to scan while my fiancee downloaded a QR code reader (showing just how ineffective the whole QR code thing can be). I scanned the code, which took me to my browser. I waited. And waited. And waited.

About three minutes later, a non-mobile-optimized site loaded informing me that I had not won anything, though I was given a star-shaped sugar cookie for my troubles. My fiancee had no better luck with the same load time. Already frustrated by the special trip we made to the store for the non-existent gift card, the poorly-executed, anti-climactic contest gave us good reason not to use Macy’s for our registry.

My second experience was in the new Gateway Center subway terminal, where I saw an advertisement for KeepPGHMoving, a marketing campaign to build awareness for a potential transit crisis in Pittsburgh. On the ad was a QR code, which I scanned to get more information. Again, I was taken to a full-load site (complete with javascript) rather than a mobile one. As a supporter of public transit, I was frustrated by the poor execution.

Finally, a confession — I’ve made the exact same mistake on a marketing piece for the Pittsburgh Impact initiative, a program I run for my day job. Last year’s version of the piece contained a QR code, which pointed to the initiative’s website, Once again, the site to which the QR code was pointed was not mobile-optimized.

QR codes could be a very good marketing tool if marketers didn’t use them poorly. In fact, had Macy’s had created a mobile site for its contest, I think it would have been a well-executed way of entering. However, between the inconsistent application of QR codes with respect to mobile platforms — really the only time a QR code would be used — and the potential security risks associated with the codes, I can see why they’re falling out of favor.

If you insist on using them, here are a few pieces of advice:

  1. Give a good reason to scan the code – I hate the phrase “call to action”, but it’s exactly what you need to make the QR code an effective marketing tool. Don’t just give information, give an incentive to scan the code in the first place.
  2. Point to a mobile-optimized site – No flash, no large javascript, just quality design for the small screen that’s easy to navigate and gives the user an opportunity to interact with the site.
  3. QR codes are inherently place-driven – If you’re using a QR code, you’re targeting someone who is getting from one place to another. Only use them if you’re providing some value to someone on the move.

For some great examples of marketers’ poor QR code usage, check out