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Why QR Codes Are Dead. (And 6 Other Things You Should Know About Mobile.)

When I co-authored Go Mobile with Jeanne Hopkins, we devoted an entire chapter to QR codes. At the time the book was published, QR codes had been scanned by 18% of the U.S. population. Today, a year and a half later, QR codes have been scanned by — brace yourself — a whopping 19% of the U.S. population (Source: ScanLife). In other words, they’ve been an abysmal failure.

What happened? Shouldn’t a larger percentage of people have scanned a QR code at least once? You betcha.

The bottom line is that QR codes never caught on, partly because iOS and Android didn’t quickly build them into their operating systems and partly because consumers were confused by them.

We could spend a lot of time analyzing the details behind those events, but rather than do that, let’s talk about 6 more important things you should know about mobile marketing. After all, we want to focus on future success, not past failures.

Ready? Here are 6 key things you need to know about mobile:

1. Mobile First is Over. It’s All About Cross-Screen Now

The term mobile first means that you as a brand/company/individual need to think about your customer experience as a mobile one first and as a desktop one second.

By now, you probably have a mobile website. (If you haven’t created one yet, don’t worry — your competitors have one and, as a result, are taking your customers away from you.) But, assuming you’re like the 70% of our readers who do have a mobile website, your next step is to focus on cross-screen marketing.

Cross-screen marketing is based on the understanding that most consumers will connect with your brand via desktop and tablet and smartphone (not desktop or tablet or smartphone). In other words, instead of thinking about the smartphone experience first, think about the fact that a consumer might do an initial search for your product from a tablet while watching TV, then do more in-depth research via desktop, then do a final price check in-store from a smartphone. Action Step: If you’re a small business and don’t have an agency building  you a responsive mobile website, then read How to Build a Mobile Website which has some tips on building a simple mobile site for a small to mid-sized business. If you do have a mobile website and are looking for additional ideas on how to use mobile marketing, read 50 Insanely Simple Ways to Grow Your Sales with Mobile.


2. Rich Media will Soon Become the Norm

The big complaint about mobile is that the tiny little banner ads are easy to ignore. Mobile ad networks like iAd have worked very hard to combat that problem with innovative ads that jump off the screen. In the future, the majority of mobile display ads will include rich media, which will make them more engaging and more fun to interact with. Action Step: For an example of a really cool rich media ad, check out the HBO case study in 14 Insanely Simple Mobile Marketing Techniques You Can Steal from the Fortune 500.


3. Rumors About the Death of SMS are Greatly Exaggerated

I’m not a huge fan of SMS, but I have to tell you — SMS is the tool that keeps on giving. For proof, just tune in to American Idol where SMS has been used to engage the viewing audience for years and years. What’s more, data shows that the average person responds to an SMS message within 2 minutes (as opposed to 48 hours for an email). Action Step: Read Mobile Marketing Platforms: What Works and What Doesn’t Work for more tips on how to use SMS (and other mobile platforms) to grow your sales and revenues.

4. Mobile Is About More than Just Websites

While mobile websites get a lot of attention, the truth is that there’s more to mobile than just creating a mobile-optimized site. For starters, you should take a deep dive into mobile paid search or mobile display. From there, you should check out location based advertising or social/mobile. The key is to keep on innovating and keep on trying new tools — that’s the only way to really benefit from everything mobile has to offer. Action Step: To wrap your mind around all the ways you can use mobile, read 50 Insanely Simple Ways to Grow Sales with Mobile Marketing referenced previously. It’s a monster post with a ton of ideas.

5. Don’t Waste Your Time with a Mobile App

People are surprised when I tell them you shouldn’t waste your time with QR codes, but they’re even more surprised when I say that apps are also a waste of time (for most businesses, not all). There are plenty of other mobile marketing tools that are 1) easier to develop, and 2) will provide a better ROI.

Mobile apps are great if you have an embedded user base and you’re trying to reduce churn. But they’re not a good customer acquisition tool. (For proof of this, ask yourself when you downloaded an app from a brand you didn’t already know/have a relationship with. That’s right — never. Game over.) Action Step: Focus your efforts on tools like mobile display and mobile paid search before you even think about developing a mobile app. Only develop a mobile app if you have an embedded user base.

6. Instagram is the Next Facebook

Instagram is coming on strong. In fact, my entirely unscientific and anecdotal research leads me to believe that Instagram will replace Facebook among young people over the next 5 years. In fact, Instagram essentially is Facebook — in other words, it’s a way to tell friends what you’re doing — but it more easily defaults to photos, which makes it more engaging and interactive. Action Step: For more on using Instagram for your business, read How to Run a Contest Using Instagram and Twitter on the 60 Second Marketer blog.

Those are my thoughts on what’s coming down the pike on the mobile front. What are your thoughts? I didn’t have time to talk about NFC — do you think it’s for real? Or is it a flash in the pan like QR codes will turn out to be?

Jamie Turner is the CEO of the 60 Second Marketer and 60 Second Communications, a marketing communications agency that works with national and international brands. He is the co-author of “How to Make Money with Social Media” and “Go Mobile” and is a popular marketing speaker at events, trade shows and corporations around the globe.


  • No doubt that QR codes are effective if they are used correctly. They can be used for many purposes, such as marketing and promotions.

    • Yes, QR codes can be effective, but they won’t be here for long — they’ll be replaced by NFC, BlueTooth and other technologies.

      • OlympiaRoads

        NFC and BlueTooth have limited range and ongoing costs, vs. QR codes that are free and can be scanned at a distance. But there is no incentive to integrate scanning into devices because there’s no money in it for the phone manufacturers or carriers. There are plenty of QR scanning apps, but why isn’t that functionality built into the cameras of every smartphone? If it was as easy as taking a photo, anyone could easily scan a QR code. But there’s still the problem of publishers using them incorrectly.

        • Good insights, OlympiaRoads. I think your point about there being no financial incentive for phone manufacturers may have hit the nail on the head.

  • Mary

    Love the rich media concept and I feel we should be designing with mobile in mind first. I also agree with Barbara, QR codes can still offer us much, when implemented properly.

    • Rich media is what it’s all about, Mary. Thanks for your thoughts on that. See below for my thoughts on QR codes.


  • Emily Hunter

    QR codes never seemed to be relatable to me. They were always something foreign that didn’t make sense, whether it’s through the lack of proper implementation, or what. And yes, it’s true that QR codes can offer quite a lot when implemented well – but when implemented well, everything offers some value. 🙂

    • I love that thought — “when implemented well, everything offers some value.”

      Well said, Emily! You make a great point. Thanks for sharing your insights.

      — Jamie

  • Marti Derow

    Hi Jamie! I’m wondering if you can share more about what you mean when you advise to “only develop a mobile app if you have an embedded user base”? Do you mean the customers that buy your products or visit the businesses website? Thanks! Marti

    • Hi Marti —

      Thanks for your question. Sure — what I mean is that many people think creating an app is a great way to get new customers. They think that an app can attract people like a magnet, but that’s simply not proving out to be true.

      Instead, an app is best used with existing customers (a.k.a., an embedded user base). The best example of this is the Domino’s Pizza app. In the old days, when I would order pizza, I’d use the phone. If the Domino’s pizza line was busy or they put me on hold, I just hung up and dialed Pizza Hut.

      But today, since I’m a loyal Domino’s customer, I’ve downloaded their app, which is never too busy to take my order and never puts me on hold. The result is that Domino’s has effectively prevented me from hanging up the phone and dialing pizza hut. In other words, they’ve reduced their “churn” by getting me to download their app.

      Long story short — an “embedded user base” is the pool of customers who have an affinity for your brand. If you provide them with an app to make their connection with you more solid, then you reduce “churn” or decrease the likelihood they’ll abandon your brand and go elsewhere.

      Thanks again for asking the question. I’m sure you’re not the only one who was wondering about that.


      • Kate Hogenson

        Jamie is correct that mobile apps appeal more to brand loyalists — which is why linking mobile apps with loyalty programs is powerful. Think Starbucks and those stars bouncing in that cup. It introduced loyalty programs and gold status to a whole new generation–it’s very different talking about loyalty programs to college and MBA students in the past year because they get it. Starbucks claims 11% revenue and 26% profit growth due to the link up of mobile wallet and mobile rewards. Yup, use a mobile app for loyalty not acquisition.

        • Thanks for your insights about Starbucks, Kate. Great information!

        • Chris Conard Shultz

          Kate…nicely done with a relevant example. Jamie…another great artice – ur one of the best out there, and def one of my go-to’s for this kind of tech savvy for mobile. Keep it up!

          • Thanks so much for your kind comments, Chris. Seriously, comments like yours mean a great deal to me. Much appreciated!

  • Museums have even offered QR codes on their displays where patrons would be able to listen to more about the exhibit on their mobile device and have a virtual tour of the museum. The problem? Most patrons had no idea what that little square meant, and unless you had a smart phone with a third party QR app installed, it was of no benefit to you (and even if you did, well it still was of no real benefit). The University of Alabama Natural Science museum installed iPads instead where the patron could access as much or as little information about the exhibit. The result, success. Businesses had no idea how to implement these codes, how to market them, and how to provide value to the customer through their use. This is one of those things where it was a great idea, just implemented very poorly.

    • Well said, Jeremiah! Thanks for sharing your insights.

  • Meika Aysal

    Very interesting, thanks Jamie. I work in professional services marketing (law), which tends to have its own set of marketing rules. In my opinion, cross-screen marketing is not often thought about from the user’s perspective. We should be able to tell a story with our services across mobile, tablet and desktop.

    • Great point, Meika. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights on this.


  • meki

    WoW!! great information Jamie. Thats why Pat Flynn recommends listening to you. thanks and def bookmarked your site cheers mate!!

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Meki. You might also want to sign up for our free e-newsletter, which includes 83 Social and Mobile tools. You can sign up on the right hand for or the one at the bottom of the post. That way, you don’t have to bookmark because you’ll get our e-newsletter.

  • Katy Dwyer

    I agree with you 100% about QR codes. We had a client who insisted on spending a good chunk of change on getting custom designed QR codes. We advised against it. And surprise surprise! The tracking shows that no one is scanning them. Too many people used QR codes incorrectly–not pointing the user to unique content–so that even when they are used correctly, they get passed over. It’s a waste of space!

    • I agree with you, Katy. Thanks for your insights and for the story about your client.

  • And here I was just about to start using QR codes. I guess I’ll scrap that now 🙂

    • Hi Pete — You an still use them, it’s just that they won’t be around for much longer. Maybe 2 to 3 years. Good luck!

  • Jimmy Dee

    Funny thing is, I was against them from the very beginning, but as to a waste of time, I don’t know if I fully agree.

    #1 – QR codes are multi-platform in a way that Rich Media never can be – QR codes can be used in print media, ie a business card. They are in essence, a ‘clickable link’ that can be printed. When we did 20,000 flyers and we wanted to encourage our users to visit a promotional webpage, we added a short link *and* a QR code.

    #2 – cost? Are you serious? We have a catalogue here of around 70 QR codes one for each of our products, one for each category – most of which are never used. They are 500×500 pixels. The more important ones (that are used) are also customized with a logo. How much did it cost us to build them? $0 + 1 hr labour to set up the customization and around an hour for an entry level employee to do the grunt work on the 70 codes. So somewhere around $30-40 USD for the entire project for an entire year. And it’s not really a cost that goes up since we have picked the ones that we have found useful. That’s not a lot of money, regardless of the success rate. Creating a customized QR for us is a matter of 30 seconds – build the link, download the QR, drop into template in PS, save for web. Done.

    #3 – Branding – The reality is that it’s not just about clickability. It *definitely* depends on your audience, but if your primary target is the drooling, braindead masses (ie average folk), it’s safe to assume that a tiny percentage is doing the clicking. If your target audience is made up of reasonably intelligent, tech-savvy young people, you might expect a small number of users. Given what it costs for things like facebook promotions that result in largely meaningless “likes” on a channel, using a handful of well-made QR codes has been an *incredibly* cheap way to improve brand image. We’ve spent thousands FB promotions in a year, how many purchased afterwards? a few… how many changed their behavior *because* they gave our fb a like and not the other way round? Probably 0. How’s that for ROI? People don’t have to use a QR to see that it’s there. Given the fact that major brands like Coca Cola and McD’s use them and they are still seen all over the place, it’s a sign of taking advertising seriously – even for people who never use them.

    Look at the fine print. Most people *NEVER* read the fine print. But when you include some at the bottom of your ad, it makes the ad look just a little bit more professional. That’s a subconscious effect that can definitely make a difference in how the advertisement is received.

    I know how to use a QR, and usually I don’t. But when I see a promotion that uses a QR, I see it either as a gimmick (a recent Subway promotion used a prominent QR which led to an extremely annoying set of actions including signing up to a newsletter that would then result in a coupon for 10% off… yawn) or a sign of complete and thorough preparation by the advertiser.

    That True Blood example given above is an example of counterproductive advertising to me – it annoys people who aren’t interested in their product and amuses people who are already likely to be customers. Not much actual conversion happening there.

    #4 – If your users don’t know how to use QR, that’s a given. The general public is dumb as dirt. Never underestimate the stupidity of the general public. You can’t change that.

    However, using QR codes wisely is something you CAN change.

    We recently did a campaign with an online retailer staffed by some rather dim-witted Marketing people. They provided a special page for the promotion with a “short url” that happened to be *extremely long*. Something like url.com/go-here-for-the-promotion-that-we-want-you-to-see-about-this-specific-type-of-product.

    I shortened that to a tiny.cc address, which they said *NO* to. Alright, fine. But there’s no way in heck that anyone will type that ridiculous url in (my stupid Samsung has no – character on the main keyboard, so I have to change keyboard around 15 times to type the url). Yeesh. So I made a custom QR from the tiny.cc shortlink. It took me 45 seconds – far more time than I spent trying to explain to the retailer’s marketing people that the URL was insane.

    The retailers then said “naw, we don’t want to use a QR because people don’t use them”. OK, fine, but seriously, for people who *do* know how to use them, given a URL like that, what’s more likely? They’ll pull their QR reader app out of mothballs or sit there and type that url? Give me a break.

    Turns out they also thought that the QR was going to our home page or their home page and had not actually realized that it was a link directly to the promotion (they had also made this error with a simple link I had put in an email promotion as html with an “a href=more.complex.url/for-the-promotion”).

    Unbelievable stupidity – a perfect example of a company that is guaranteed to be using QR’s wrong. But they also use html wrong and short URLs wrong, but I wouldn’t call those ‘dead’ mediums.

    Definitely be aware that *everything* that you do in marketing is going to have a huge fail rate if your goal is only to count individual sales. But if used correctly, QRs have a place with anything else out there, like balloons, stickers, facebook pages, instagram pages…

    • Hi Jimmy — What a great comment. In fact, it may be the most thorough comment ever written on the 60 Second Marketer blog. Bravo!

      It sounds like you have a lot to contribute on this front. If you’re interested, take a spin through our guest post guidelines and consider writing a guest post for us. You’ll find the guidelines here:

      Looking forward to hearing more of what you have to say!