August 31, 2012, 12:36 PM

Are QR code campaigns really worth it?

An MMCF speaker will share what didn’t work for him.

Lead Photo

Nicholas Cole, director of marketing, Catholic Co.

Nicholas Cole, head of mobile and digital marketing at The Catholic Company, an online and catalog retailer of Catholic books and gifts, was planning to present a case study of a successful QR code campaign he ran using the retailer’s print catalogs at the 2012 Internet Retailer Mobile Marketing & Commerce Forum. But he decided on a different presentation when the QR campaign’s performance didn’t turn out so great.

He’s come to realize that the company’s core demographic—women between 35 and 55—behave quite differently from the group that has taken to QR code scanning with greatest enthusiasm—men aged 18 to 34. And that might account for the QR campaign’s disappointing returns.

Still, with the United States Postal Service’s recent changes that give a 2% discount to retailers that add QR codes to the items they mail, he says, the savings prove significant enough that he prints the codes on his catalogs anyway.  The USPS, citing the popularity of mobile marketing, is offering the incentive as a way to make direct mail pieces more popular with consumers and more valuable to marketers—thus trying to breathe new life into the steadily declining direct mail marketing that has been a core component of the Postal Service’s revenue.

QR codes are patterns printed in a square that consumers can scan with a mobile device, leading them to a web site or application. But they can be a confusing, sometimes logic-defying option for marketers, Cole found. At the Mobile Marketing and Commerce Forum he plans to discuss what he’s learned in his QR code trials at The Catholic Company, global trends in QR code marketing and what other retailers are finding—including by opening the floor to hear directly from attendees. His session is titled: “2-D Bar Codes: The next evolution?” 

“The reality is that we, like many others, are struggling with QR codes,” he says. “That’s what the topic really is—the real world representation of what people are experiencing with QR codes.”

As he discovered after testing the codes printed on catalogs, Cole thinks that many retailers have little information about whether their target audience is likely to scan a QR code. Equally important, he adds, is knowing what the targeted audience expects from the QR code if they do take the trouble to scan it—would they prefer a coupon or other promotion rather than simply being taken to a product information page? If their expectations aren’t met, they may give up on the technology. “Often the first time a person scans a QR code is the last time a person scans a QR code,” he says.

However, the Postal Service incentive puts limitations on how retailers can use QR codes, he says. The Post Office is giving the 2% postage discount only when the QR codes on mailings link to an online product page. At The Catholic Company, the discount adds up to several hundreds of dollars in savings per each catalog drop, he says, while the QR code management system he uses only costs about $100 per year. So even though his customers don’t use the codes, it’s worth his while to print them anyway.

“At the same time, it would be a good idea to allow the retailer to give the customers what they want while still allowing the technology of the QR code in the print,” he says of the office’s restrictions.

Internet Retailer’s editors asked Cole to speak because of his background working on many mobile projects at The Catholic Company, including helping launch its mobile-optimized site in 2010. He has a history of staying abreast of the latest in mobile marketing and technology for the small retailer.

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