Some bike companies are using QR codes in a clever way. Tern Bicycles, for instance, now places QR codes on bikes. These 2D barcode glyphs are encoded with identifying information for individual bikes: every owner's bike has its own microsite, accessed by the QR code. Fox suspension forks are now stickered with QR codes which link up with a diagnostic tool that measures sag and other parameters.
However, many companies use 'Quick Response' codes in place of URLs, making consumers jump through an unnecessary hoop. Why open up a QR scanning app on a smartphone, fiddle for focus, take a pic, wait for an info pop-up and then navigate to the prompt when reading a website address would be easier, quicker and memorable away from the QR code?
Companies have gone QR crazy. One bike shop - which shall remain nameless - has a big QR code square on its front door: it just sends scanners to the shop's simple-to-memorise website. Most customers won't know what the big square squiggle is, and won't scan it. A vital piece of retail real estate has been turned into a high-tech blind-spot.
When so many QR codes point to bits of the 'outernet' that could just as easily be URLs, there's a great risk that consumers will soon get bored of QR codes. But as Tern, Fox and other companies demonstrate, it's possible to be creative with QR codes, using the machine-readable square as a genuine tool for engaging with an audience.
Point your smartphone at the QR code above to read more of my views on the subject… [Naturally, this won't work if you're reading this article on a smartphone...]
In the meantime, are you excited by these 2D barcodes or turned off? Your answer could be very much down to what's between your legs, and how long you've been on the planet. As you'd expect, young men are the most voracious openers of QR codes. A study by ComScore of the US found that in June 2011, 14 million smartphone users in the US, representing 6.2 percent of the total mobile audience, scanned a QR code on their mobile device. The study found that a mobile user that scanned a QR code during the month was more likely to be male (60.5 percent of code scanning audience), and skew toward ages 18-34 (53.4 percent).
But with squillions of smartphones now in ownership worldwide, the QR code may become a mainstream way of accessing information on the move.
Originally created in 1994 by a Toyota subsidiary in Japan to track car parts, a QR code is designed for fast decoding. QR codes can point to info like URLs, vCard contact information, or can link to a smartphone's email or texting service.
Specialized uses QR codes on point of sale banners, linking to long and complex YouTube URLs, allowing consumers to watch tech and riding videos of a bike in action, while in-store, standing next to the bike.
"By simply scanning a QR Code, located on bike cards and marketing materials for 22 different Specialized bike families, riders instantly connect with the story and technology behind the bike they’re looking at," said a review of the system on SpecializedRiders.com.
Russell Merry of Cycling Sports Group UK is a big fan of QR Codes.
"We use them on adverts - it brings print ads to life," he said.
"We are thinking about replacing owners' manual with them (but that has legal restraints) and they are on catalogues. QR codes are especially good for sending mobile users to video and CSG (UK) is good at making video content."
Evans Cycles uses QR codes on instore banners sending users to a landing page with offers. And Fisher Outdoor used QR codes at the Cycle Show, sending visitors to watch videos.
Joshua Hon, vice president of Tern Bicycles, said his company uses QR codes as service tags.
"Every Tern bicycle ships with a small Service Tag, located under the clear-coat on the down-tube of the frame. This Service Tag may be small, but it is a very powerful tool that will enable a lot of really cool things. Some are here today, some we envision for the future, and many we haven't even thought of yet."
The Service Tag links to a web address unique to that individual bicycle.
"Today, you end up at a simple registration page, preloaded only with the 8-Digit Product ID. Eventually, customers will be able to scan that code in the store to be taken to a page with all sorts of information, specs, and even videos introducing the bicycle to them. Once the bicycle is registered using this code, the bicycle will be linked to a specific owner's account on the website. The consumer will be able to look up information and alerts about their bicycle.
"We can track when a frame/bike was produced; track where the bike was shipped; distributors can track the dealer the bike was sold to. In case of recall, batches can be clearly identified. In case of service, we can easily identify parts needed."
Fox Suspension Fork uses QR codes married to a smart suspension setup pump that integrates sensors and utilizes specific fork and shock parameters to walk the user through setting sag and rebound.
The smart pump communicates with a smartphone application to walk the user through the process by giving specific instructions and intuitive feedback. There are no measuring, calculating, or additional tools required to go through the process, and these settings can be saved into a library of terrain- or bike-specific settings.
Partnering with Kryptonite locks, Bike Shepherd is a security tagging service that uses QR code tags to identify bikes. Police no longer require bespoke scanners, anybody with a scanning app on their smartphone can scan the tamper-resistant stickers (three per bike) to see if a bike is registered as stolen. The QR code is linked to the bike's serial number.
But for every innovative use of a QR code (Columbia Sportswear's aboxlife.com uses QR codes to track boxes shipped around the world, in the hope the boxes will be used for longer) there are many hundreds of lame uses (want one on your gravestone?)
New York printer Chris Fritton has litho-printed a book of QR codes to highlight the ubiquity of the technology but said:
"There's something very curious about a cipher named 'Quick Response' that requires me to take the phone out of my pocket, open an app, point the camera at the code, and wait for the translation. Most literate adults could read 5-10 sentences in that time."
And as well as the speed issues, there's also a general lack of recognition of what a QR code is and how to access the information contained therein.
Strategic marketing firm Russell Herder of the US conducted an online survey to gain insight into awareness levels of QR codes and attitudes towards their use among consumers.
The survey found that "the steps required for interacting with a QR code – downloading an app and scanning – make the likelihood of mass consumer acceptance a questionable proposition. Furthermore, there are those who allege the massive influx of 'me-too' marketers into the space has quickly reduced the device to clutter in the eyes of consumers."
According to Russell Herder's research, seventy-two percent of consumers say they have seen a QR code, yet nearly three in 10 do not know what it is. Further, nearly one in five people who regularly go online via their mobile phone do not know what a QR code is.
"QR codes also suffer from a problem currently plaguing social media marketers in that consumers are primarily interested in engaging only to the extent they are afforded special promotional deals," said Russell Herder's report.
"A March 2011 study by marketing firm MGH found that getting a coupon, discount, or deal along with entering a sweepstakes were by far the most likely reasons consumers would be interested in scanning a QR code. These findings were consistent with a study of QR code use in Japan, a more mature market with respect to the technology. NetAsia Research reported that, for more than three in five Japanese adults, obtaining a special deal or promotion was the primary reason for scanning QR codes."
Paul Lakeman of QR-reactor, a British-based QR generator with baked in analytics and tracking, said:
"What many of the early adopters of QR Codes have failed to realise is that the connection is only the beginning of the engagement between the brand or business and the consumer. Under a third of mobile users who have used QR Codes say that the reward they receive is worth the effort. If that is the case then we can safely assume that 70 percent of brands or businesses are using QR Codes ineffectively.
"For those, like me, who are involved in the QR Code industry, these statistics could be frightening. I say 'could be frightening' because I sincerely believe that QR Codes can be an effective marketing tool, if they are used correctly. They act as bridge between the offline and online worlds. Once marketers have got the consumer to cross that bridge they must realise that this is only the beginning of the engagement cycle. The consumer has gone through multiple steps to make the connection and cross the bridge and the marketing companies must do similar if the connection is to be rewarding for both parties.
"Many businesses think that by using QR Codes they will be regarded as ‘cutting edge’ as early adopters of new technology. They go on-line find a free QR Code, slap in on some printed material and, hey presto, they're cool. Er, not.
"Like any marketing initiative the use of QR Codes should be well thought out, goals set and ways to achieve these goals carefully planned out. Companies should be looking at ways of rewarding customers, building loyalty and helping them market the business through referrals, word-of-mouth and social networking.
"QR codes present remarkable opportunities to connect with the right consumers at exactly the right time. Imagine a customer walking into a bike store, he or she scans a QR Code and you deliver something of real value direct to the mobile device. You should research what motivates your customers and the reward you deliver should be appropriate."
If QR codes are clever, NFC is cleverer.
NFC stands for Near Field Communications and is new contactless technology. Customers “tap” an NFC-enabled smartphone against a poster that contains a small a tag. Here's NFC in action in JD Cycles: