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Are QR codes losing their magnetism?

Even though QR codes still represent the majority of print-to-mobile activations in print and retail, brands and publishers are not clamoring to use the technology like they once did.

Last year, mobile bar codes ruled the mobile space ? they were placed everywhere ? from billboards, to clothing tags to magazine pages. However, perhaps in large part to lack of education, it seems the technology has lost some of its glimmer.

?Yes the spark has faded,? said Matthew Szerencse, market development manager of Digimarc, Beaverton, OR. ?QR Codes take up valuable real estate and don't offer brands any creative control.  

?Brands don't want to place a generic black and white box all over their creative,? he said. ?Seventeen Magazine has used over 250 imperceptible digital watermarks in multiple issues. 

?There is no way a publication like Seventeen can place 250 QR codes in their publication without being obnoxious.?

Key technologies
Done right, QR codes are effective.

However, many marketers simply place a QR code on their product and assume that consumers will see it and automatically scan.

?Advertisers just slap a QR code on their creative and pay no attention to the post-scan experience,? Mr. Szerencse said. ?This has caused some consumers to not trust QR codes since broken links, boring content and non-mobile optimized sites are second-rate experiences. 

?We're also seeing an increase in malicious QR codes that lead to malware and viruses after scanning,? he said. ?This year we'll see even more publishers and retailers using digital watermarking to connect with their mobile audience. 

?Since digital watermarks can be placed in any type of media, brands can use one platform to engage with consumers across multiple touch points throughout their shopper's journey.?

According to Ritesh Bhavnani, chairman of Snipp Interactive, Washington, the shine on QR codes has dimmed down. However, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

?One of the interesting thing about mobile marketing is the proliferation of choice available to marketers,? Mr. Bhavnani said. ?Even as much as two years ago, you pretty much had to choose between text messaging and QR codes.

?Today you have a wider palette with image recognition, NFC, AR and digital watermarks,? he said. ?So as a marketer you can now choose the technology that best fits your specific needs.?

For QR codes that means that although the shine is off, the utility of them may well continue to increase.

?Probably the single biggest issue with QR codes remains the need to have an app to scan the codes and the need to launch the app to scan the code,? Mr. Bhavnani said. ?It?s time-consuming and not elegant.

?If any of the phones ever does a passive QR scanner that is always on and one has to just point the phone camera in the direction of the QR code to launch the content that would make QRs much more user-friendly,? he said.

According to the executive, mobile bar codes work well in utilitarian contexts ? as identifiers, for providing dense amounts of information and for getting access to very specific pieces of content.

When used appropriately QR codes can indeed build engagement and drive interaction.

The problem, however, is that because QR codes are free and easy to generate they are being thrown onto everything ? reducing their overall perceived utility for customers.

?We are seeing a lot of great applications of augmented reality this year ? and if I had to put my money on one specific application in mobile marketing it will be that,? Mr. Bhavnani said.

?You're starting to see augmented reality move away from the ?gee-whiz cool? towards providing customers with real utility and creating real engagement which is great,? he said.

For many marketers, QR codes are a cost-effective way to bring the digital and physical worlds together. 

And, many industry experts believe that the technology?s decrease in popularity is due in part largely to a lack of innovation and a lack of consumer appreciation for what the technology can do. 

QR codes have been around for years and yet, according to eMarketer statistics, only 19 percent of Americans have activated one. 

Additionally, QR readers are not standard on many devices and require an additional download, making them less convenient in consumers' eyes. 

?Marketers need to do more than stick QR codes on posters,? said Vanessa Horwell, chief visibility officer of ThinkInk, Miami Beach, FL. ?Instead, they need to strive for creativity when trying to break out of the QR code funk. 

?I think image rendering/augmented reality will take center stage,? she said. ?For one thing, camera technology and sensitivity continues to advance. 

?Then there?s a host of apps that mix real-world and digital data together. And all of this imaging convergence is coming as the lead-up to wearable products like Google Glass.? 

According to Alex Romanov, CEO of iSign Media, mobile bar code popularity has never really inspired a true fire of consumer demand.

QR codes, which have been around since 1994, but only capable of being read by smartphones since 2010, have not gained wide-spread traction, per the executive. 

?I do see QR codes as an effective companion technology for digital signage and proximity advertising and engagement ? all of it in real time,? Mr. Romanov said. ?There?s also important technological similarities with digital signage that may help QR codes? growing popularity: both are opt-in experiences. 

?In that way digital signage and Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity may finally soften the ground for a true QR code success,? he said. ?In my eyes, marketers haven?t been creative enough in their QR code usage. 

Marketers and brands appreciate their ability to merge the physical and digital worlds, but in the fast-paced world of mobile technology, image recognition and augmented reality have, in some ways, surpassed the QR code's initial cool factor.

What?s more, compared to newer technologies, QR can be downright clunky. Consumers must first have a QR reader on their phones; often they must download additional software and then visit a Web site as part of their engagement. 

None of these steps inspire grandiose calls to action. Consumers are an instant gratification lot. And, sometimes QR codes fall short in that area.  

?I remain partial to proximity advertising via mobile devices; that is the wireless transmission of messaging or offers to mobile devices, taking the form of SMS, email, push notification and opt-in deals, discounts and digital coupons,? Mr. Romanov said. ?It's timely, interactive, and relevant - and provides consumers with the information they want, when they are primed and ready to receive it.  

?And Apple?s recent $20 million purchase of WiFiSlam, an indoor GPS tracking technology, suggests proximity advertising?s and location-based marketing?s reach is only going to grow,? he said. ?Augmented reality, image recognition and wireless opt-in communications like SMS and push notification will prosper as well. 

?I think that partnerships across marketing channels, like mobile messaging used in combination with digital signage, for example, will really flourish. In my eyes, no one technology can really be dominate today with consumers literally consuming content across a number of screens at one time. Marketers must really find a way to capture their attention ? and to do it in a way that is personalized and respectful of consumers' privacy.? 

Many industry experts believe that mobile bar codes still hold acclaim with marketers.

According to Rick Chavie, vice president of omnicommerce at hybris, QR codes have not faded. 

Instead, marketers are seeing a broader penetration and more use cases being developed. 

?A few examples include luggage tags, physical or digital signs, product information that's accessible from a shelf label, coupon offers in newspapers, loyalty program emails, and even repair manuals that are accessed by scanning the QR code directly from an appliance,? Mr. Chavie said. ?There is continued growth for QR codes in diverse spaces. 

?Much of this growth has been spurred by consumer brands who see QR codes as a way to disseminate a message at a low cost, yet provide a pathway to rich content upon scanning the code,? he said. ?Based on the adoption of QR codes by companies ranging from Coca-Cola to Starbucks to UPS, we are seeing the broad reach of this tactic as a marketing tool.  

?Unlike a hot software app that may come and go, QR codes can be updated continuously even if the QR code itself is embedded in a static print advertising vehicle such as a magazine.?

Final Take
Rimma Kats is associate editor on Mobile Marketer, New York