Quick Response Codes (QR codes) are beginning to make an appearance in shop windows and newspapers across the UK right now. Many of you will recognize the strange little black and white squares that look like a cross between a bar code and a magic eye picture. Giving customers an immediate route to further information and unique offers, QR codes offer huge engagement and customer behavior tracking opportunities to businesses that utilise them to their best effect.
QR codes are a risk for SEO experts like me, as they direct people straight to clients’ websites, bypassing search engines and thus potentially adversely affecting rankings. But if your website is set up well to encourage repeat visits, then QR codes can help to draw people in and increase your overall hits.
Tomorrow night in my home-town of Leeds, thousands of people will be wandering the city centre as part of the Light Night arts festival. Light Night has used QR codes on its publicity materials or the first time this year, directing its audiences to the Light Night website for more information. I was interested in why the organisers chose to use them.
James Hill, the event coordinator (from the Arts & Regeneration team at Leeds City Council) told me that they “saved us a lot of space on our print this year as we could reduce the text and send people to the website for more information. Once at the website, people generally stay to have a look round as there are loads of photos and other interesting content like direct links to other useful sites. It’s also the first time that QR codes have been used by artists in the events, making for some very interesting site-specific audience engagement opportunities.”
The Light Night audience is more engaged and tech-savvy than most, so the use of QR codes at such an early stage of adoption in the UK makes sense for the brand. But are QR codes just a passing fad? Who is using them? Do most people even know what they are? Theses are questions you want answering before you invest.
Who Uses QR Codes?
We must remember that while fairly new in the UK, Japanese mobile users have been using QR codes for over a decade now, so the technology itself isn’t new and their use has become mainstream elsewhere.
In terms of age groups, we know that young people love using their mobiles for texting, but what about accessing the internet? Research has shown that 18-27 year olds (the so-called ‘Generation Y’) now use their mobiles much more often than desktop PCs to access the internet, offering great opportunities to engage with young people ‘on the move’ through QR codes. But usage isn’t just restricted to the youngest mobile phone owners, 70% of QR consumers are between ages of 25 and 55. And across all age groups, mobile internet access is predicted to exceed PC-based access globally by 2014, illustrating the importance of mobile optimised websites and technologies. Something to bear in mind when you’re commissioning a new website.
Is it Just a Fad? What Can QR Codes Really Do?
If you’re still wondering whether QR codes are just a fad, consider that last year, smartphone consumers increased their scanning of QR barcodes by 1600%. The most common reasons being to access discounts, get more information, or make a purchase.
Over 50% of search engine driven website hits involve people using search engines to begin typing a specific web address as a quicker way of getting to the website (search as navigation), QR codes offer an even quicker way of getting to the information. As an SEM shortcut, they could therefore cause some issues for your established SEM strategy.
For the customer or audience member, it’s all about accessing information quickly, with minimal effort, and at that particular moment of engagement. The advantage they have over web URLS is that they are all about accessing information in a particular moment of time, whereas people might make a note of a website URL to check later (and then forget).
As discussed earlier, QR codes can save on printing cost, and with innovative use, can also encourage sharing behaviour and create a real buzz about a campaign. Check out the business card example on this website. They can be programmed to launch every mobile touchpoint consumers care most about: Web, SMS, Apps, Email, Phone, and can offer virtually unlimited data storage.
As the technology is still in early stages of adoption, it has an element of being quite cool and innovative at the moment, which – if these are desired attributes for your organisation – will give positive reinforcement for your brand.
And we have the holders of the patent for QR codes, bar code and data capture experts, Densowave, to thank for the fact that they cost very little and are pretty much open source to generate. QR code generation is now really simple – try it for yourself. Type your URL into this free QR code generator to see what your unique QR code would look like.
QR Codes: What about the negatives?
If you’re considering using QR codes as a website or brand engagement tactic for your business, you must bear in mind the cons as well as the pros. If people are accessing your sites through QR codes then they’re bypassing search engines, which may have an adverse effect on your search engine rankings.
This may not be a concern, e.g. to audience development organisations, for whom education and multichannel engagement is more important than search engine rankings. But for businesses that rely on converting keyword search hits, this could spell trouble.
They don’t work for everyone. The QR code for Google Places has been dropped, although the reasons why are not clear. Perhaps Google doesn’t want to encourage technology that bypasses the use of it’s web search facility.
Another criticism is that most people currently don’t yet know what they are, so – for example – completely replacing a URL with a QR code in a newspaper advertisement is probably not a good idea. However, it can do no harm when used in addition to URLs, especially in places where engaged audiences may want to find out more information while on site (for example in a gallery or a supermarket).
There are some points to be aware if you’re considering using QR codes.
As noted by Ford Motor Company’s Scott Monty, some organizations are still missing the obvious, such as making sure the QR code goes to a site designed specifically for mobile, and ensuring there is sufficient phone reception in the area where the code is placed.
Like any engagement tactic, QR codes should be used to encourage interaction and should bring specific benefit to the customer or audience. In the same way that setting up a Facebook page just for the sake of it will not bring more people to you unless you offer them something unique for ‘liking’, the use of QR codes should be carefully considered and done for a specific reason, to achieve a specific aim.
If you would like advice on any aspect of website development, web marketing or the impact of QR codes on your existing SEO strategy, just give me a call on 011 33 20 21 21.
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