Silverpop - Stupid Is As Stupid Does: Solving the “Problem” of QR Codes and Other Emerging Channels
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Stupid Is As Stupid Does: Solving the “Problem” of QR Codes and Other Emerging Channels

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by: Loren McDonald (@LorenMcDonald)
06 July 2012

Emerging technologies present exciting opportunities for marketers, yet at the same time 41 percent of respondents to a recent IBM study cited the growth of marketing channels/devices as their top challenge. The problem? With rules and best practices for new channels not yet crystalized, how do you use them to connect with customers and drive revenue … while avoiding becoming the unwitting punchline for the latest marketing joke?

Take QR codes, for example. Recently, the funny-looking technology has become the marketing industry’s version of late-night TV talk show jokes. A few examples:

  • Chris Brogan (@chrisbrogan) and Scott Stratten (@unmarketing), keynote speakers at Silverpop’s client conferences, got some of their biggest laughs when they shared downright stupid implementations of QR codes. (Chris did go on to cite good examples.)
  • The article “QR Codes Become Joke as Enthusiasm Wanes” references several examples of questionable QR code deployments, and in general takes a dim view of them.
  • A blog, WTF QR Codes, was launched to celebrate the "ridiculousness that is QR codes." (Note: The site contains adult language.)

Perhaps the real problem with QR codes isn’t the medium itself, though. Maybe it’s that marketers started using them – along with Pinterest boards, mobile apps, Google+ posts and countless other shiny new tools — without considering whether they were the most appropriate way to drive the actions they wanted.

So, in the name of every QR code that’s ever been placed on a highway billboard, I present to you nine factors to help you decide whether to deploy an emerging channel/technology:

1) Reach/Access: What’s the market potential or reach of a new channel? Is it available to anyone that has Internet access or does it require an additional hurdle? QR codes, for example, have two practical considerations: Users must have smartphones (just under half of American mobile subscribers do, according to Nielsen), and they must have downloaded a QR code reader (34 percent of mobile users do, according to JiWire).

2) Consumer Awareness and Adoption: According to an October 2011 study by Chadwick Martin Bailey, only 21 percent of survey respondents had heard of QR codes. However, 81 percent could identify a QR code when shown one. Similarly, services like Foursquare and Pinterest have a relatively modest number of users, but are growing rapidly (Foursquare at 1 million users a month). The decision whether to invest in a marketing channel is not necessarily about the technology’s broad adoption but rather its growth rate and adoption among your target customers. Many retailers say Pinterest, for example, is a fast-growing source of traffic to their site.

3) Solution/Problem Solving: I’m all for testing and adopting emerging technologies and channels to get a leg up on competition. But you must ask, "What problem does it solve?" QR codes make it easy for users to scan and reach a Web or landing page to obtain information they’re interested in, presumably more easily than having to type in a long URL with big fingers on a small keyboard. Putting a QR code in an email might look cool (or maybe not), but it’s actually more complicated than clicking a link.

4) Context: Does a new technology or channel fit the specific consumer context? While shopping for cars recently with my daughter, I came across a QR code on the window of a car that linked to an online brochure for that specific model. I loved this approach, and it felt perfect for me. I had my smartphone in hand, I was visiting several car dealers that day, and I found the ability to get more details online convenient. That same car model QR code doesn’t make sense on an ad on the side of a bus.

5) Customer Value: Does the channel/technology actually provide value to your customers and/or prospects? Alerting B2B prospects via SMS that your monthly newsletter is available probably doesn't make sense. However, your Webinar registrants might appreciate an SMS reminder that the event is about to begin. Similarly, in-store QR codes located near products that link to product ratings and reviews can quickly bridge offline shopping with online resources.

6) Competitive Advantage: Are your competitors deploying this new channel/technology successfully? Would implementing a new QR program – say for the ability to download brochures from print magazines – get your materials in front of prospects more quickly than competitors? Or get you on par with them?

7) Expected Lifecycle: A common refrain among marketers is, "Will this become the next MySpace?" This legitimate concern reflects marketers' fears that a popular channel, service or technology will fade as quickly as it became the latest fad. Part of the answer lies in two areas: definition and alternatives. If you defined your investment in MySpace simply as MySpace, then you might be disappointed. If, however, you defined it as a “social network,” then you probably benefitted from what you learned.

The second question is, “What are the alternatives?” For QR codes, the current alternative is manually typing in a link – while longer term we’ll likely see alternatives such as mobile visual search (MVS). But even if a better option than QR codes emerges in the a few years, should you ignore the current “standard?”

8) Fit with Customers: A well-known magazine wanted to increase email subscriptions. It added a "Text to subscribe to our email newsletter" message to address labels. The campaign bombed, partly because the average age of subscribers was more than 60 years old – a low segment of SMS users. Similarly, according to a comScore MobileLens study, teenagers rarely use QR codes. So, a retailer targeting 12- to 16-year-olds would likely see little adoption of the crazy-looking codes in their stores.

9) Resources/Budget Priority: Perhaps the greatest challenge for most marketing departments is finding the budget, time and resources to tackle each emerging channel or technology. Three thoughts:

  • Flexible Funds: Gain approval going forward for reserving a percentage of your marketing budget for new channels and testing new things.
  • Leverage Existing Resources: If you have a dedicated social media manager, then adding a Pinterest or Google+ program on top of your Facebook and Twitter program might be doable. If you don’t, you'll likely have to remain focused on existing programs.
  • Replacement/Ease to Deploy: Creating an awesome mobile app can easily cost you $50,000 and may require a lot of resources. QR codes, on the other hand, are typically added to existing programs, making the impact and resources likely negligible.

Taken together, these nine points will create a framework you can use to guide your thinking about new technologies, help you decide how you can best work emerging channels into your marketing mix, and stop you cold if you ever start thinking about placing a QR code on the side of the Goodyear blimp.

For more tips and observations from Loren, connect with him on Google+.

Related Resources:
1) Blog: “Is Your QR Code Landing Page Mobile and Context Friendly?
2) Video: “Scott Stratten: The Problem with QR Codes
3) Tip Sheet: “7 Tips for Getting Started with Location-Based Marketing


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