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

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

Scanning or texting?

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.

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"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:


Giselle Tsirulnik is deputy managing editor on Mobile Marketer and Mobile Commerce Daily. Reach her at giselle@mobilemarketer.com.

Related content: Software and technology, QR codes, SMS, text message Tim Miller, Sumotext, Jeff Hasen, Hipcricket, Scanbuy, Neomedia

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

  1. nayin oluwaseyi says:

    October 25, 2011 at 5:14am

    im trying to connect the two world together. Cant i text a qr code to a person who has a reader and he can interprete
  2. Tim Dunn says:

    September 26, 2011 at 10:15am

    There's alot of noise in these comments without any practical experience. I ran a QR campaign for a large brand across a range of UK media a few weeks ago. We used QR and SMS shortcode both promoted very well.

    The QR code did over 100 times the SMS response. QED.
  3. Nathan Kako says:

    August 19, 2011 at 9:34pm

    @ QR TimeAndPlace

    It is not about the vendors charging you to create, print and place your code. The main reason these are outsourced is the type of content that will in turn display after engagement.

    IMO SMS and Qr Codes are both very powerful and arguing between the both is unnecessary, consumers want options.
  4. Scott Metcalfe says:

    March 23, 2011 at 4:08pm

    SMS and QR Codes are both powerful tools in the mobile marketer's toolbox. Sure, there is some overlap but typically we see them as being complimentary modes of client engagement not competing modes.

    Having said that, for local service businesses that have a time driven depreciating asset such as restaurants, hair salons and nail parlors it is tough to top the immediate impact of SMS marketing.
  5. Brian Badillo says:

    March 21, 2011 at 10:29am

    My initial thought is that SMS comes across as more intrusive because it gives outside access to you where as scanning is something that can be done at will and the consumer feels more in control. This kind of falls inline with the whole shift in inbound vs outbound strategy. The consumer doesn't want to be pushed information necessarily...its so accessible that they'll get it when they need it. It would be interesting to see which tactic (QR code vs SMS) has the most engagement.

    From a marketer's perspective, user experience alone is enough to warrant QR codes, but the reality is that there isn't enough adoption or awareness yet so you need to do both.
  6. Kelly Dundas says:

    March 21, 2011 at 9:57am

    The notion that users have to download an app is inaccurate. The most broadly used smartphone platform has Blackberry Messanger preloaded. That super-app has a QR code reader in it.
  7. Alison Richards says:

    March 18, 2011 at 11:28pm

    unfortunately there are several inaccuracies in this article, ie: QR code was invented by Densa Corp (subsid of Toyota) in 1994 but the bottom line is that QR code has instant conversion capability and near unlimited in available actions. SMS does not bring a mobile phone to enriched content like video or or a PowerPoint slide show. Once consumers adopt to the process and equip their devices with the appropriate scan reader they will find the capture process delivers far more than that of SMS.
  8. Travis Isaacson says:

    March 18, 2011 at 5:29pm

    Jeff is right, it's not about one platform has to win while the other has to lose. Both are good marketing tools with specific advantages and disadvantages.

    Right now, because QR codes are the shiny new toy, everyone is trying them. As the market matures, we'll see more strategic and appropriate uses.
  9. Shannon DiGregorio says:

    March 18, 2011 at 3:11pm

    This is a really good overview of some of the problems I have with adopting QR codes. I'd like there to be more standardization. I have an iPhone, and right now I tend to just google whatever I'm looking for more information about at any given time.

    I'm interested to see where the QR market heads, because I do think there is a lot of potential.
  10. YJ Hong says:

    March 18, 2011 at 5:59am

    Great discussion for 24hrs! By reading the pros and cons, I can say for sure that marketers must look at 2D barcodes beyond SMS, not that they should drop SMS altogether, but that they should not miss out something highly potential.

    Two things to add:
    1. QR code is not the one and only 2D barcode vying for the attention of the marketers (and accordingly the consumers) in the USA market. This in-camp competition certainly introduces confusion and lags into the general market acceptance and progress (What kind of 2D barcode is this? Which code reader to use?). We (here in Thailand) have no such problem. Here when anybody mentions 2D barcode, it's definitely QR code! People believe that "QR code" is "2D barcode". Why? Because numerous new campaigns are QR coded. Why? Because QR code is "in trend" and easy to start with DIY, as versus SMS shortcode arrangement.

    2. @Noel: QR codes are trackable, it depends how you encode it and serve it. We do things like unique personal QR code + VDP (Variable Data Print) for our enterprise client's end customers. The enterprise's customers can be thus served individually based on personal profile/preference. This goes into CRM, loyalty points, announcement, account checking, update, affiliations, cross-sell, and etc. And all end users (personal QR code owners) activities via his/her own QR code are fully TRACKED and formulated into the analytics that we report back to the enterprise periodically. In this case we're not dealing with the wide open "uneducated" population, rather it's a targeted and nurtured community. The engagement can be very deep and wide, fully tracked and managed. Best thing is that, all personal QR code can be re-directed to new landing anytime, even with automated rule guidance, i.e. you need to issue the personal QR code once and only without revocation or re-issuance. The end users holds a piece of paper (a car,d, a letter, a balance sheet, etc.) with his/her own QR code printed which makes him/her feel the connection with the enterprise on top of the pride of his/her ownership of a visible high tech physical item - QR code.

    Now imagine how to implement all the above based on SMS shortcut + keywords? Would the SMS business bureaucratic allow you such freedom?
  11. Mike Stintino says:

    March 17, 2011 at 7:15pm

    The biggest drawback with QR code is that the data, once programmed, is static. Reckon connection hubs like Kimtag are likely to take more ground as they'll work with NFC and any other lead-in system.
  12. Tito Milla says:

    March 17, 2011 at 5:33pm

    Unfortunately for SMS the stigma brought about by years of premium SMS abuse and subsequent over regulation by mobile carriers has made 2D codes that much more attractive to brands. After all, who wants to wait 6-9 months for short code certifications while incurring charges of $500 - $1000 per month only to send 70-90 characters of almost illegible content to its consumers? In the short term we will still need SMS, but 2D code scanning is growing exponentially with smart phone market penetration; and incidentally so is the use of email in direct marketing to mobile.

    SMS will continue to dominate as a person to person communications channel, but its days are numbered as a consumer engagement and brand communications tool.
  13. Adam Hutch says:

    March 17, 2011 at 4:55pm

    A point that also should be raised is the end users feeling of 'connection' to the tech community when a QR code scan is successful. To the consumer a QR code is seen as new, exciting and more advanced, SMS is easy..I scan a QR code, I'm connected..
  14. Nico K says:

    March 17, 2011 at 3:05pm

    Our campaigns / clients use both QR and SMS, as and when required. There is one BIG difference - with SMS shortcodes, at least in the US market, you are always dealing with carrier approval, campaign certification etc - hassle & cost even for the most basic text response action. Now on the GOOD side, shortcodes establish a DIALOGUE and you capture the mobile number for future communication, which the QR does not do. And on-air, TV etc - forget QR, even in viral social media it is much easier to say "text this to number xyz" - witness the current Red Cross campaign for Japan which is all over Twitter. To be safe = maximum reach, we recommend to offer BOTH options, until things shake out more.
  15. Patrick Donnelly says:

    March 17, 2011 at 1:08pm

    @sumotext - get your facts straight, 94 Denso

    I really agree with Hansen's comment about code agnosticism - as stated with MCD several months ago (http://www.mobilecommercedaily.com/2010/09/09/how-to-convert-impressions-into-interactions-on-mobile)

    The promise of both these technologies are in connecting users to data. In a fragmented market of smartphone adoption, you are never going to get everyone, but you will get enough people. And the people who get it, will LOVE it - Pareto's rule. As mobile marketers, we should create "integrated media" experiences that allow for multiple inputs and calls to action that allow for people to interact with a brand and create engagement experiences that can be achieved through a number of different entry points.

    Is there a point? QR codes may not be the future, but they are a step into the future. Who knows what types of systems we will use to communicate between people and brands in 1 year, no less 5.

    Patrick Donnelly, QrArts LLC

    ps. Kudos to Scanlife for helping encourage and educate people about QR and mobile tagging.

  16. Noel Chandler says:

    March 17, 2011 at 1:00pm

    I'm still trying to see the long term appeal of QR Codes to businesses. There's definitely a lot of hype, but the biggest problem I see with them (besides the fact that you need a special reader on a smart phone to "see" most of them) is that the code itself is not trackable. Marketers can't see how many times their codes have been scanned.

    By comparison, 99% of phones in the US are SMS enabled and when customers ping a short code, not only can that be tracked, by the information they receive back can be changed dynamically based on area code, time of day or year, etc.

    I don't see QR Codes going away, but SMS is what we use every day to communicate with our friends, family and co-workers. It will always be more ubiquitous than scanning, especially where two-way communications are concerned.
  17. Proshat Javid says:

    March 17, 2011 at 11:52am

    Thank you Giselle for the great article. Although QR codes benefit search marketing, brands and users, but another issue with them is that users must be equipped with a camera phone and the correct reader software that can scan the image of the QR Code and currently only Smartphone’s are technically equipped to do this; many users that have mobile phones that have cameras are unable to get QR reading software for their phones. But anyways, whoever starts using QR codes, especially to market to teens and twenty something will have a huge market that will most likely really embrace the technology.
  18. Simon Kibsgård says:

    March 17, 2011 at 11:36am

    While I very much agree with YJ Hong I would like to remind you that SMS or barcode is of less importance than customer value adding. What are you going to provide. Im dead tired of reading about barcode campaigns celebrating barcodes. Its like celebrating the envelope your last direct mail campaign was delivered in.
  19. Dave W. says:

    March 17, 2011 at 11:33am

    Companies who've made a fortune on SMS marketing believe only SMS marketing works. Companies who offer QR codes believe QR is better.

    Consumers used to ONLY know SMS, because that's all they had. Now, they have an increasing number of smartphones and "Apps" (including QR Reader Apps; Goggles and more) are usurping SMS (and, taking money away from those companies who've made a fortune with that cash cow).

    For consumers today, it's about time and convenience. Typing in a shortcode and keyword takes slightly less time than launching a Reader and scanning. But, receiving an SMS reply can lag...even a :15 second lag is terrible (and, frequent).

    Offering a QR code AND an SMS option to get a mobile URL is pretty easy. I've done that and the % skew heavily to the QR use (if they see a QR, they react to the QR, not the shortcode).

    Regardless, consumers and brands haven't really taken to QR beyond test campaigns and the numbers are abysmal, while Apps have succeeded. Increased mobile web use and depth of experience will necessitate getting users to mobile URLs quickly.

    The newer image recognition solutions (Goggles) and NFC are likely to usurp both SMS and QR within 24 months, then we'll have a whole new argument to engage in.
  20. Ratul Shah says:

    March 17, 2011 at 11:25am

    Just look at Japan - QR code usage is far superior to SMS messaging.
  21. Ed Burckhardt says:

    March 17, 2011 at 10:46am

    In our initial test phase of great new application RQPon created by a company in Southern California, we are finding out that consumers find it much easier to recommend an auto repair shop or mechanic to their friends or relatives. Rather that having to explain via SMS why they might like the facility, they simply scan the RQpon and forward it to anyone the want. I believe the initial success of our test is due to the wide integration of the social element that is integrated with it. Once the RQPon special, or offer, is created it is easily distributed to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube. Another great feature is that consumers signing up to the service receive a text message every time that the business updates their offer. Although our testing has been implemented on the vertical market we target, it is working so effectively that we are planning to expand our marketing to SMB's. You can watch the demo we are using here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CTE4Q3rjUEU
  22. James Washok says:

    March 17, 2011 at 10:37am

    Great to finally see an industry press article not going go-ga over QR codes. There are certain, limited applications for scanning codes that are great for marketers...fun brands, young audiences, print & direct mail, and appropriate entertaining content.

    However, in the vast majority of situations, when a marketer is looking for universal reach that is fast, easy, inexpensive and considerably flexible, SMS reigns supreme.

    The other commenters extolling the virtues of scans are defending technology over consumers. I've seen plenty of QR codes that I did not know which app to use to scan because of the competing platforms and I'm a mobile guru with four scan apps on my iPhone. How much more confused is a consumer likely to be? Marketers don't want, nor can afford irritating customers and prospects. I like the concept of scannable codes. Yet, I must push aside my own geekiness and consider first our client marketers' needs and the consumers they wish to engage...what's going to work best for both parties.

    Mr. Wehrs is correct that scanning a code only takes two seconds...but that's just the scanning part. It can take two mins to get to even being able to scan if one has to download the appropriate app first.

    @YJ Hong...SMS is capable of contextual awareness. One does not need unique short codes in subway terminals. One simply uses unique keywords on the same short code or uses unique long codes to achieve the exact same results as the solution you speak of. Yes, one does receive a URL by text to click on, but let's not inaccurately make that out to be a bigger deal than it really is. Consumers are educated on what to do with texts and URL's...90-95 percent of them them do not yet know what to do with a scannable code.

    Finally, QR codes cannot be used on billboards, on TV, on jumbotrons, on banners behind airplanes at the beach, on radio, on buses & tops of taxis...pretty much anywhere more than 3' away from as close as consumers can get to the code. Yet, SMS can be used on/in ANY and EVERY media both near and far.
  23. QR TimeAndPlace says:

    March 17, 2011 at 10:34am

    QR codes has a time and place to be sure. SMS does offer the wider reach that many brands require, but I agree, there is some allure to scanning an image and getting a near-instant digital reaction. That is, of course, provided you have a smartphone, have the requisite app (pre-installed or downloaded) to appropriately capture the optic and certainly are compelled enough by the call to action to take part.

    Two things that make me laugh about QR codes though are that many of these call to actions include a line like "to download a QR code reader, text XYZ to 12345"... I saw one such promotion this morning on the 4 train... so again, by promoting a richer mobile media experience via SMS, you get the reach you need...

    Also, I find it somewhat ridiculous that organizations charge brands for "QR Code Implementation" when QR code creation is free via bit.ly. Unless the vendor plans on printing the QR code and pasting billboards all over the city or printing up ads in magazines, there is little to no value in outsourcing this work.
  24. Scott Thomsen says:

    March 17, 2011 at 9:24am

    This question wouldn't even be asked if truly cross-channel marketing programs were the norm. In instances where both a QR code AND SMS call to action are utilized in tandem, real results show QR utilization to be well over 10 to 1. We call this a parallel SMS path. And quite frankly, before we created large scale programs, we thought the opposite would be true. It simply is not the case. Scanning behavior, especially when embedded in broader mobile applications, rains supreme.

  25. roger w says:

    March 17, 2011 at 9:13am

    my problem with we codes is they aren't always readable & that's frustrating for the end user & merchant
  26. YJ Hong says:

    March 17, 2011 at 6:34am

    QR code, and all 2D barcode as well, delivers much stronger contextual intelligence when compared with SMS and text URL. For example, we can deploy a QR code on a subway station platform and know which direction the mobile phone user is going, and accordingly deliver promotions nearby the next 3 stops. We can do this on every station, and each QR code performs uniquely and superbly.

    Can SMS or a text URL do that?

    You can easily deploy multiple unique QR codes in different visual/location/page context and track them specifically, and respond to them differently. Can you afford to deploy that many SMS shortcodes?

    But, cost aside, SMS or text URL simply cannot deliver such contextual intelligence. You can SMS or key-in a text URL from anywhere, but that's exactly where SMS and text URL lose the contextual intelligence.

    And counting the clicks, SMS takes a string key-in, then send, then wait for a URL to come back, then click on the URL to go to the mobile landing page, and finally get the mobile landing page.

    2D barcode? Scan and get the mobile landing page. That's it.

    And talk about call-to-action. Those who can only do SMS, what kind of action you're to call them to? If mobile landing is the main action item today, why lure those whose phone don't go mobile web at all? Ah, of course, regardless if the action is going to happen or not, the SMS campaign provider (not the brand owner, but the SMS service guys) get paid anyway, simply counting the SMS, not the action!

    QR code? Can scan, can mobile web. 100% guaranteed! "SMS to reach more for call-to-action" is a straight excuse and sales pitch in reality!

    Perhaps some objections on QR code have arisen from the lack of knowledge or intention to utilize the technology, on top of the clinging to existing money making stream. Consumer is always the last to know? Or just because we're selfishly not willing to educate them - or educate ourselves?
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