QR codes currently occupy a nebulous piece of the mobile marketplace. On the one hand they offer endless potential to drive interactivity through creatively executed campaigns (like this one, this one, or this one). However, that potential is significantly hindered by the fact that the average consumer has no idea what they are or how they work.
QR or ‘Quick Response’ codes look like barcodes and work like links - they generally navigate a user to a mobile site or a piece of support promotion. They are perfect for outdoor advertising (advertising that reaches a consumer when he or she is outside the home) and can go a long way for driving engagement.
But you do need a QR code reader on your smartphone to access content and a given code's usefulness can be dependent on your OS or on your phone's hardware capabilities. For example, this amazing promotion for Inception was intended for Android users, as the site it directs you to is a Flash based page.
This may seem shortsighted on the advertisers part but ComScore research suggests that might not be the case. 60% of QR code users are male, 53% of who are between the ages of 18-34. Sounds like an Android user to me, and the demographic for the movie for that matter. ComScore's findings underscore something that is true of all advertising; great campaigns are about knowing your audience.
While the codes have endless usage potential in say a grocery store (think coupons) or to advertise a print product’s digital version, it's unlikely that those consumers would even get to the point of scanning the code. Youth-minded entertainment and tech products would be better fits, as the users are more likely to respond to the media.
QR users aren't your average user - from a branding perspective they are exactly the kind of users advertisers dream about. They are unicorns -- highly engaged, attentive consumers. Which makes it extra important that the codes are used intelligently.
Jon Stewart recently poked fun at CNN's use of the codes to 'enhance' the GOP debates in New Hampshire. He makes a fair point - some brands are quick to adopt new technology simple for the sake of leveraging the 'cool new tech thingy.'
As with everything digital, content matters. Technology like this should be used as a value added supplement not just a dump for all the content you can't use anywhere else. The best QR campaigns feature games or sneak peeks, coupons, or highly creative promotional videos.
It's hard to say if QR codes will stay in the tech geek hinterlands - they may just be too esoteric for the average user. For advertisers who try - the benefits are seemingly endless. If you snag a consumer who is willing to pause, scan, and wait for your media to load, don't bore them. They are engaged users, who are freely giving unprecedented levels of their attention to your content – so it better not suck.