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Is there a point to QR codes in an SMS-dependent society?

QR codes are quite popular nowadays, with a lot of large brands incorporating the technology into existing marketing collateral to increase engagement. But, adding an SMS call to action to existing media can also connect consumers to richer experiences, so is there really a need for QR codes?

Both QR codes and SMS can be used to connect consumers to interactive content such as Web sites, video, pictures, apps and other multimedia. The difference is that consumers do not need to download apps to respond to SMS call to actions, like they do with bar codes.

"A subsidiary of Toyota created quick response codes in 1999 for tracking parts on assembly lines," said Tim Miller, president of Sumotext, Little Rock, AR. "They represented a major advancement over traditional bar codes because they held more data, readers could capture the data at 360-degree angles, and the data could be decoded at higher speeds.

"But for marketers, QR codes just don't make sense to me," he said. "If you want to deliver content to a mobile device or link consumers to Web sites, apps, or multimedia, SMS via short codes can do the same thing in a fraction of the time - without a smartphone, camera, or installed reader.

"You can also get a compliant opt-in in the process."

SMS? familiarity
A study by ABI Research finds that consumers worldwide will send more than 7 trillion text messages in 2011, indicating that SMS is the the key communication tool of the modern era.

ABI?s data shows that consumers are increasingly comfortable communicating via SMS. According to Informa, 2010 SMS traffic in the United States was 1.1 trillion messages.

Ninety percent of the U.S. population sends and recieves text messages, according to Nielsen. With a current population of about 310,995,668, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, that means that approximately 279,896,101 send and recieve SMS messages. 

Comparatively speaking, mobile bar code scanning is growing at a very rapid pace, but is only now starting to move out of the early-adopter stage, according to the ScanLife Mobile Bar Code Trend Report released in January.

Scanbuy claims that only 25-30 million consumers in the United States are scanning bar codes, representing a very large growth year over year.

?SMS has distinct advantages because of its reach, use by mobile subscribers of just about all ages, and standardization,? said Jeff Hasen, chief marketing officer of Hipcricket, Kirkland, WA. ?When you create an SMS call to action, you don?t need to worry whether your target has an interest in QR codes, not to mention an app to engage with the image.?

What?s even more confusing is that Microsoft Tags, for example, can only be read by Microsoft Tag readers, so there is a lack of standardization in the space.

That means that consumers need multiple readers, depending on which codes they are scanning. It also means they need to figure out which app to open and when.

"Even if every brand published the same code format and every phone came installed with the same reader, I think consumers would still struggle to justify the utility of QR codes,? Sumotext?s Mr. Miller said.

?Consumers phones are cluttered with competing apps and all it takes is one frustrating experience trying to find the reader or take a picture of the code and many consumers won't ever try it again," he said.

?From the publisher's perspective, you also have to consider how big these images have to be, how ugly they are, and all the extra space required for download instructions ? not to mention the static nature of the URL that is likely embedded in the image. Does anyone really want to call their Web developer every time they need to end or edit a QR campaign printed in a magazine?"

Attractiveness of QR codes
Keeping all of this in mind, what then, is the attractiveness of QR codes to brands?

According to Mr. Hasen, QR codes do have their benefits.

A campaign using QR codes can often be implemented faster by brands new to mobile because they do not have to wait for a short code to be obtained and provisioned by all the carriers.

Another perceived advantage is that QR codes are cool and fit a brand?s personality. 

But when it comes to choosing one or the other ? SMS or QR codes ? Mr. Hasen suggests taking an agnostic approach.

?As marketers, we should be agnostic when it comes to mobile tactics as long as we succeed in our goals of engagement that leads to trial, sales and loyalty,? Mr. Hasen said. ?Many of Hipcricket clients, including Macy?s, are wisely choosing to provide consumers with multiple ways to engage.

?We are seeing this now in the Macy?s aisles in the Backstage Pass program that provides fashion tips, product information and more,? he said. ?Macy?s is inclusive, even providing a URL at the point of sale for those who don?t wish to interact via mobile.?

At the end of the day it is about turning what used to be passive activities into interactive ones, per Mr. Hasen.

That means that regardless of whether it is a QR code, an SMS-to-short code or both, some sort of mobile call to action needs to be included in traditional media and other communications vehicles like point of sale materials to better engage consumers and drive them to purchase.

?QR codes have a buzz about them and are included in most conversations Hipcricket has with its clients and new business prospects,? Mr. Hasen said. ?But for many quick service restaurants and other brands, SMS call to actions remain an indispensible part of the marketing mix.

?And SMS calls to action are becoming more and more commonplace,? he said.

Consumers prefer codes?
Mike Wehrs, CEO of Scanbuy, New York, said there are a number of reasons why the industry is seeing both large brands and thousands of small businesses embracing codes so quickly. 

The mobile device can offer so much more than even a year ago, and codes can easily launch literally any action available ? including SMS. 

Marketers want to show more dynamic content like video and social networking which can also be adjusted in real time based on deeper analytics like location or handset type.

?The bar code is a more open and democratic solution that does not require a huge amount of investment or time to market,? Mr. Wehrs said. ?Codes are visually more obvious than SMS so they are really turning into an icon which shows people there is something more here. 

?A code converts anything into a 'get more' button,? he said.

But, one of the most important factors why code scanning is moving so quickly is user adoption.

Mr. Wehrs said people use texting for communication purposes because it is easy, but when it comes to engaging with a brand, people would rather scan a code than use SMS. 

?It?s just that much easier to scan a code and launch really compelling content in one click than typing a short code, waiting for a response and then clicking for content,? Mr. Wehrs said. ?Plus, let?s be honest, it?s pretty rewarding to scan a code to see where it goes in two seconds.

"We have actually run campaigns in the U.S. and abroad with both an SMS and a 2D code option, and we see more scans than texts," he said. " In fact, in the four campaigns that have offered both options, all of them saw more scans than texts."

Final take
David Javitch of Scanbuy talks QR codes: