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part four: qr codes

Group of people in subway trainDarrin Klimek/Getty Images

Leave it to the Toronto Transit Commission.

In its eagerness to reach out to riders, the transit authority has mounted ads that urge residents to contact it by phone, in person, online – and even by QR code, printed right there on the ad.

This would be fine, if the ad had not been mounted in a subway car. Toronto's subways are, if nothing else, good to their name: well and truly underground. And for all the other places in the city you can get the reception you'd need to look up a QR code, it's not on the subway.

There are a lot of reasons to consider QR codes as a marketing tool.

They're cheap to deploy – generating them online is free, and once you've sunk the money into the infrastructure to support them in your website's content management system, there's no additional cost to send them out.

They're increasingly ubiquitous, meaning that more and more smart phone users have installed scanning software and learned to use it.

They can perform genuinely useful tasks, especially when it comes to linking the real world to the digital space, be it a geographical location, like a realtor's sign in front of a house for sale, or even a specific product on a shelf.

And marketers who have put QR codes to work say that more and more people are scanning them.

All that said, not all QR code deployments are meant to succeed, and the present enthusiasm has seen them popping up in places that are as unhelpful as the deployments are innovative.

There's some cause for pause.

Do people have a reason not to scan them?

The mere presence of a cell signal is one condition for a working QR code, but not the only one.

If your QR code is too small or too detailed – or worse, both at once – older cellphone cameras won't be able to read them, leaving customers feeling foolish for having taken out their phones to wave at a non-functional code.

My aging iPhone 3G was unable to scan codes at Tim Hortons, which printed a customer-survey code on glossy laminate with the offer of winning a year's free coffee. Not a bad incentive – but it's useless if the last mile doesn't work.

Similarly, at a U.S. motel chain, I found a high-definition code (again, on laminate) that was so small, the iPhone camera couldn't focus on its details by the time it was held close enough to scan.

It's also important to consider the physical position of your QR codes. If you want people to scan your codes, put them in place customers can scan from a regular standing position.

At Shoppers Drug Mart, I found a flyer bearing a QR code mounted on the front wall of a shopping cart, facing inwards. The only way the code could possibly be scanned was if the user somehow contorted himself or herself into an empty cart. This is not, strictly speaking, user-friendly.

Don't scare them off

Remember: Scanning a QR code is a public act. There's no way to discreetly scan a code on a sign – a user has to walk right up to it, load up an app, and make a show of holding his or her camera to the code. In other words, scanning an ad means publicly associating with it.

This means that, unlike other forms of advertising, lurid or over-the-top appeals that might have solicited a surreptitious click in private might not work in a public forum.

Nor does this apply to crass advertising: Enthusiastic health non-profits might want to think twice about using QR codes on transit ads about sexual health. (Especially if, as one correspondent writes to tell me, one involves a large spotted banana.)

Have you given people a good reason to scan?

This is where the QR code question begins and ends. It's easy to convince yourself that, as a marketer, you've provided people with an incentive to learn more about your product.

But remember that consumers' thresholds for interest are different then your own. They are inundated by QR codes, on top of regular advertising, and if there was any particular technological thrill associated with scanning a code, it's fast wearing off.

The upshot is that QR code marketers face an uphill climb to entice would-be scanners.

Critically, a QR code on an advertisement can't just link to more advertising. Near my home, a bus shelter ad for a dietary supplement features an endorsement from a minor celebrity, along with a QR code exhorting viewers to scan to code to learn more about "my story."

In other words, one pitch leads to another pitch. Even for celebrity followers, that's a tough sell.

QR codes aren't without risks. They're visually hostile, and detract from the punch a well-designed ad carries. Put a QR code in a conspicuously useless spot, waste users' time with self-evident content, or implement them so that they only work unreliably, and you'll frustrate consumers and damage your brand.

Ideally, QR codes provide a real service to customers, putting them in touch with information they would have had to hunt for, or might have forgotten to look up.

The more useful you can make them, the more users will appreciate you.

Just remember to put on your consumer hat and think like the user who's bombarded by QR codes – and not the marketer who's eager to use them.

Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website .

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