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Commentary & Analysis

Millennial Marketer: “I Don’t Use QR Codes”

If anyone is using QR codes, it’s Millennials, right? If anyone understands the value of QR codes, it’s marketers. So why doesn’t this Millennial marketer use them? Read on to find out.

By Heidi Tolliver-Walker
Published: April 25, 2018

If anyone is using QR codes, it’s Millennials, right? If anyone understands the value of QR codes, it’s marketers. So why doesn’t this Millennial marketer use them?

This discovery came out of a conversation I had last weekend in a Verizon Wireless store. I was sitting there with my daughter, waiting for her first iPhone to be activated, and I noticed a QR code on one of the in-store posters. I asked the salesperson whether he had noticed anyone scanning it. He said maybe a few people, but not too many.

I figured him to be in his mid- to late 20s, so I was curious. “How about you?” I asked. “Do you scan QR codes?”

He smiled and shook his head. “No, I don’t.”

I asked why. He said that he had a degree in marketing, so he was all too aware of the many ways that companies use to market to him. He assumes anything on a package, a poster, or piece of marketing collateral is there to sell him something. He pointed to embedded links in emails and websites. “They are there to take you to a page where they are going to sell you something,” he said. “That’s the whole reason they are there. As far as I'm concerned, QR codes do the same thing. I don’t want to be sold to.”

For him, QR codes are red flags of something to avoid. “Sales push ahead! Stay away!”

Is he the exception? Or is that what most consumers hear when they see a QR code? As just another way marketers are trying to get into their wallets? Or do they see QR codes as a valuable way to gain information? For me, it’s the latter. I use QR codes enough to know that, on occasion, I end up somewhere interesting that is of value to me. I use them as quick links to surveys, ways to access recipes for foods I like, and sometimes for entertainment (Angry Orchard’s talking trees come to mind). But not everyone thinks this way.

Even as consumers become more familiar with how QR codes work, your salespeople need to emphasize to clients the need to add text around QR codes to emphasize why their customers should scan them. “Scan here to download our app” or “Scan to see video on product use.” Make the value clear to them. Otherwise, as my Verizon Wireless sales guy so clearly pointed out, viewers may just see your clients’ “added value” using QR codes as another way to sell to them...and therefore those efforts fall flat. 

Heidi Tolliver-Walker Heidi is an industry analyst specializing in digital, one-to-one, personalized URL, and Web-to-print applications. Her Marketer’s Primer Series, availalbe through Digital Printing Reports, includes “Digital Printing: Transforming Business and Marketing Models,” 1:1 (Personalized) Printing: Boosting Profits Through Relevance,” “Personalized URLs: Beyond the Hype,” and “Web-to-Print: Transforming Document Management and Marketing.”



By Gina Danner on Apr 25, 2018

Heidi good points on the ever evolving perception of the QR Code. While I appreciate this one "marketing student's perspective" we do need to remember it is anecdotal data. (and I know you get that) Too often clients, especially in smaller businesses, take a single comment and change their whole strategy. Remind them that a comment from an individual like this needs to be treated with a level of "suspect". Is he reflective of your defined target persona? If he is, you may need to take steps to obtain more input. If not, tuck his comments in the back of your mind and watch for them to appear in the future - or choose to investigate further.

My goal is to always understand my client's STRATEGY and when I see their artwork, I look at all the mechanisms it contains to see if the piece delivers on their STRATEGY. I check offers, landing pages, and QR codes. If the pages don't deliver on that strategy, I use that moment to start a conversation. It is a point where i can differentiate myself and NextPage from the rest of the herd.


By Eddy Hagen on Apr 25, 2018

A marketer who's (personally) opposed to everything that smells like sales... interesting...

Sounds a bit like a printer who never takes printed business cards with him, who doesn't want printed promotional material.


By Gina Danner on Apr 25, 2018

Eddy -- excellent points. Perhaps that is why he is working retail at this point. It would be interesting to have a conversation with him about the role of marketing.

And the printer who doesn't have amazing business cards, exceptional promotional material, or doesn't do direct mail to promote his/her business... well that's just blasphemy.


By Heidi Tolliver-Walker on Apr 25, 2018

Yup. I scan QR Codes just to see what's on the other side. I want to see what marketers are doing well . . . or not. I'm not thinking about being marketed to. I'm thinking, "I wonder how well they implemented this?" As Gina said, maybe that's why he's working retail!


By Rick Levy on Apr 25, 2018

We are never going to get 100% engagement in anything we do, unless we are giving away money. For every Millennial that doesn't scan a QR code there are others who will. But, I agree with Heidi that we should be more diligent and include copy that explains why a QR code should be scanned.


By Heidi Tolliver-Walker on Apr 25, 2018

Yes, Gina, to your point about this being anecdotal, I agree. It's not necessarily representative of the entire population of people who could potentially scan QR Codes. It is only instructive on why someone might not scan a code. Because I regularly scan QR Codes, I'm always interested in why someone wouldn't. What's going on inside their heads? That's all that was meant here.


By Jeremy Wright on Apr 25, 2018

My biggest issue with QR codes initially was the need for another program to open them. I had to open a QR code reader which alway felt slow and I had to remember what it actually was since I didn't use it enough. I can type, even on a phone, faster than having to find the program just to scan a code that has all the info around it on how to find it/get to it. I know now that function has been integrated into the native camera but am mostly ingrained in my habits and find myself not even wanting to see what it is.


By Brandon Rome on Apr 25, 2018

With modern mobile OSes adding native QR support to their default camera apps, adoption should increase over time. This removes the friction of having to download a 3rd party app to use the technology.

That said, I think QR codes shine for more complicated or sensitive protocols outside of http, like initiating a cryptocurrency transfer (where a typo can irreversibly misplace your funds), or connecting to very secure wifi networks with complex passwords. They can be so much more than a bridge between a physical piece and a company's homepage.

(FWIW, I'm a 33yo web developer)


By Robert Ross on Apr 25, 2018

Your beating a dead horse. QR Codes are useless to consumers of any age. Always will be.


By Robert Godwin on Apr 26, 2018

I just ordered a buggywhip using QR code...

Why wouldn't anyone just use image recognition? Package designs are as unique as a QR.


By Heidi Tolliver-Walker on Apr 26, 2018

Here's my question about image recognition. Until it becomes the default way to interact with printed pieces, and every consumer understands and can do this, what would cause someone to know to scan the piece? Or even try to see if there is anything to see? At least with a QR Code, there is a physical indicator that says, "Scan me!" Yes, with IR you can put a marker on there, or say, "Scan me," but how is this really any different from a QR Code?


By Robert Ross on Apr 26, 2018

Just talked to two 25 year old college grads (med student and IT major) and asked them if they ever used a QR code and they laughed at me for even asking......


By Robert Godwin on Apr 26, 2018

You answered your own question. Image recognition is in fact no different than a QR code. So, why have a second, unrelated step in between. Scan the object of interest and just go there.


By Robert Godwin on Apr 26, 2018

In response to Robert Ross: I recently guest lectured at Loyola Marymount University here in Los Angeles, a reasonably modern, metropolitan city. Out of 20 students, 4 had read a magazine and 8 saw something on TV in the prior month. None had been to their (snail) mail box. Wrote about a couple months ago. Research indicated an 8 second attention span. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/gen-z-your-eight-seconds-fame-robert-godwin/


By Eddy Hagen on Apr 27, 2018

Image recognition: from a technical point of view, it can be done. But that's not the issue. The issue is human behavior and how you can get people to use it. Three steps are important:
1: they need to know that there is something to scan!
2: give them instructions how they have to do it. Over and over again. Don't assume that everybody has the same knowledge as you...
3: make it worth while... (and deliver on that promise).
All three are important issues. Regarding the first one: does anybody remember DigiMarc, which introduced hidden watermarks in magazine ads, already in 2000? These hidden watermarks could be scanned with a webcam and brought you to a web page. (btw: does anybody remember the CueCat, also launched in 2000, which connected print to the web)

Regarding my first remark about the marketer that's opposed to everything that smells like sales: there is a huge discrepancy between marketers in their role as a marketer versus being a consumer. Look at mobile advertising: most marketers will invest more and more in mobile advertising (because the reports say that's where the money will be going), but as a private person they hate it... Think about that. And when a marketer tells you that he's shifting budget from print to mobile, ask him whether he, as a private person, likes to see ads on his mobile...


By Alice Wilson on Dec 23, 2018

I disagree! QR codes are a great tool to give a digital dimension to any product. I feel they are becoming mainstream in the US and for sure in Texas. I have seen so many versatile uses for QR codes and now that every smartphone has a default build in QR scanner it's a game changer.Also what changes the use is that now most social media have qr code scanners build in their apps.

The best qr codes are dynamic qr codes as they allow you to change the url of your qr code and track data.We use them a lot and they are great to drive more leads. One of the best qr code generators I have tested is QRzebra. https://www.qrcode-zebra.com

I'm sure we going to see a lot of use for QR codes in marketing, it just takes time, but qr codes are definitely making a huge come back.


By Stan Tan on Jan 13, 2019

The competition for QR codes is typing in an URL or search for a landing page on your phone and that is ten times easier than finding that QR code scanner app, position your camera properly to the QR code and scan it.


By Henry Cazalet on Jan 14, 2019

In the UK, the use of QR codes in marketing shows no signs of returning to the glory days of 2012/13 where it seemed almost every product had a QR code proudly displayed on its packaging.

I took a trip to my local supermarket to see how many brands were still using QR codes and what they were using them for.

Despite inspecting hundreds of products, I could only find 4 QR codes and 3 of those lead to dead mobile websites.

We clearly have some way to go to revitalise their use.
I wrote up the findings in this article.



By Jerry Brown on Jan 14, 2019

Fun article, Mr. Cazalet!

QR Codes may be dead for marketing purposes - RIP - but they are being used in many more valuable and appropriate ways as means of conveying personal and purchasing information. For example, I just came back from an appointment with the local DMV. They scanned the QR code I was given back in November to pull up the information about me and the reason for my visit. Last week, the desk clerk at the Hilton Hotel I stayed in for a short holiday used my advanced reservation QR code to complete my room registration. The week before, an usher at a movie theater scanned the QR code on my iPhone in lieu of a paper ticket. I could go on and on.


By Henry Cazalet on Jan 15, 2019

Thanks Jerry.
Yes I couldn't agree more, QR codes are cropping up everywhere, just not for marketing.
The big barrier seems to be the hassle of finding your scanning app, loading it up and then scanning. People just can't be bothered.
Now that Apple have incorporated a scanner into the iphone camera there could be a resurgence!


By Sneh Choudhary on Apr 22, 2019

I can understand the apprehension that a consumer might have. But in China and India and now even Japan, QR codes are a way of life. You pay using QR codes, you unlock offers with them and do just about everything with QR codes on a regular basis.

It is interesting to note that along with Apple, Android 8 and 9 also support QR code scanning without an app. On Android 9, Google Lens can also scan QR codes that you have saved as a screenshot or taken a picture of from the gallery. Android 10 even allows you to connect to WiFi without a password using a QR code.

I think what it comes down to is using the QR codes for the wide variety of purposes that it can be used for - from calling a number to saving a business card. QR codes are for more than directing people to a landing page or giving them a coupon. There are several companies that have been using QR codes for Scan and Go technology and consumers, especially millennials, love the idea of 'invisible' payments.

In fact, I believe marketers don't realize the true potential of QR codes and dynamic QR codes at that. Imagine using the same QR code to display a campaign pre-purchase and a way to re-order the product. Or say you have a different offering in the morning, another one for the afternoon and a totally different campaign in the evening.

If you want a no-nonsense QR code that lets you create QR codes for free, you can try: https://www.beaconstac.com/qr-code-generator


By Sander Kask on May 23, 2019

Good discussion going on here!

Obviously there are very conflicting statements being presented and I think I understand the reason. Very different things have been put under the same umbrella term "using a QR-code", that explains the different answers.

I would agree that QR-codes are dead, just like the millenial marketer said. But what we mean is we don't scan QR-codes using our smartphones. And more specifically, we don't use our regular camera app to translate machine codes (QR-codes, two-dimensional bar codes or similar things). Using our regular camera app, the result could only be a web address, which is most likely a sales push. He is totally right about that.

I mean, what else, other than a web address, could our camera app translate? A string of alphanumeric data that we would have to copy+paste into another app or a website? That is cumbersome. A clever message? Why wouldn't the creator of the code just write the message instead of the code then?

However, a second concept is presenting machine codes (QR-codes, bar codes, others) so that a specific machine in a specific location can quickly identify its content and do something with this information. Scanning bar codes at a shop, entering the cinema with a QR-code on a paperless ticket, entering airplanes with a bar code etc. This is growing and this is great. Even the millenial marketer would agree with that, but he understood the question differently, like many of the commentators here did.

If you want to count this as some kind of success, then it is a success of paperless tickets, not the success of QR-codes... Visually readable machine codes (QR-codes, bar codes etc.) have been around for a long time, the news here is that I don't have to print a paper anymore, I can just show the code that was prepared for me on my smartphone.

Note that in these well-received examples, on the code-receiving end there is still a dedicated machine/app or dedicated personnel, that scans quickly. That is (still) the key.

And now there is a third way to understand QR-codes. Not scanning them, not presenting them, but instead CREATING (and then presenting and scanning) them. This is what all the fuss is about in China. But still, it works inside very specific application ecosystems. Sharing WeChat, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Pinterest, cryptocurrency contacts or posts or transactions or whatever, it all happens inside these apps. It is not about sharing web addresses, which was detested. Instead it means sharing specific pieces of code that only mean something inside these ecosystems. Like my second point, but now everybody can do it (inside their very specific niches).

But the takeaway here is not that "QR-codes are back!" People are not scanning random codes on the streets and posters and packages. If you understand QR-codes as a marketing tool, then no, they are as dead as ever. It was probably only marketers who ever opened their scanning app to "look what is on the other side", out of professional curiosity.


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