Mobile Marketing: QR Codes vs. Image Recognition

The notion of using 2D barcodes, or QR codes, in mobile marketing campaigns seems to be generating a lot of chatter in the advertising industry, but what’s the real story behind these blotchy little black and white critters of product packaging? And, how will QR codes really work in an economy where many people are still using feature phones? From a 25,000 ft. view, 2D barcodes sound pretty bad-ass… put a medium sized, funky looking barcode on a magazine ad or billboard and customers will instantly be able to connect to your brand’s offering.  Sounds great, right? Not so fast.

In almost every meeting, clients and partners ask us what we think about these nifty little codes and we always respond with the following: “2D barcodes have done well in geographically small, highly saturated, and highly controlled or monopolized advanced markets, such as South Korea and Japan, but the U.S. wireless market is a lot different and requires an understanding of what actually makes the codes works. More importantly, you need to understand the nuances of how the barcodes are interpreted by mobile devices to calculate how successful (or not) the technology will be for your specific needs. There are a couple of important reasons why 2D barcode campaigns do well in South Korea and Japan, but will cause significant issues among consumers in the U.S. and most of Europe.  It has to do with standardization–or, in the case of the U.S. and Europe, the lack thereof.  Standardization of a minimum set of hardware requirements on camera phones, standardization of the barcode reader software on the phones, etc. etc.” While the technology behind 2D barcodes is old and quite simple, the barriers to entry for the mobile consumer are high.  2D barcodes were invented in the 1990′s and have since been applied to the mobile market to varying degrees of success and failure.  Basically, they are a souped-up version of the traditional barcode you see on just about everything.  As one can trap more data in 2D barcodes, this makes a great argument for marketers looking to apply things such as: hyperlinks to mobile sites, scan-to-call, scan-to-coupon, or other product/service related content.

Now, it’s time for the reality of 2D barcodes. 2D barcodes, just like regular barcodes, were not meant to be read by millions and millions of mobile consumers across a diverse market of handset devices and wireless carriers. They work well in specialized environments, but they face challenges when taken outside the context of a controlled, constrained operation. The truth is, when applying a 2D barcode to your next print ad or outdoor campaign, your potential audience will not only need to download the right (yeah, there’s more than a few types so you need to be careful here) 2D barcode reader application, but they will also need a camera phone with a focusable lens. Whether the camera phone is auto-focus or manually adjustable lens-enabled does not necessarily matter.  What matters is that not all phones are equipped to process a 2D barcode and not all phones have the right on-board camera.  We’re seeing advanced optics being put into mobile handsets and this is a trend that is expected to continue at a growing rate.  Nevertheless, the vast majority of mobile users are more than two years away from getting the right devices — and that’s among the upper end of mobile consumers in U.S. and European markets.  When we look at markets in China, India, Australia, and other places, the same issues apply but there is no global silver bullet.

If you’re looking for mobile marketing solutions today, and not five years from now, you need to consider the hardware, software, distribution, legal, user experience, and other issues around selecting technologies for your brand or clients.  We all know when it comes to creating a great interactive mobile campaign, the devils are in the details.  And, when those details requires mobile consumers to select the right barcode reader app from and among a variety of confusing choices AND have one of a very limited number of tier 1+ camera phones, the potential pool of potential consumers shrinks considerably. It’s even worse when feature phone users have no way of installing the correct barcode reader because a.) they can’t get it and b.) their camera hardware isn’t going to support it anyway. Right out of the gate, your supposedly new whiz-bang ad campaign can alienate and offend over 80% of the mobile consumer public if you’re not careful.

The net result for 2D barcodes is that they are pretty cool solutions for specific applications, such as mobile airline boarding passes or advanced inventory management, but not exactly the best of what’s out there for mobile consumer marketing in today’s rapidly changing world of mobile media and brand interaction.  The name of the game is to get as many high-quality customer interactions and conversation engagements as possible with your targeted demographic.  Severely limiting the potential response pool by applying restrictions will simply decrease the success of the campaign.

It will be interesting to see 2D barcode mobile campaign experiments, but we’re pretty confident it’s not the optimal solution for most consumer brands.  The original barcode weaves its roots through and around MIT about half a century ago. Today, Pongr’s team of mobile experts are applying our MIT educations in computer science, math, and engineering to help solve some of the most exciting and rewarding challenges in mobile marketing.  As we continue to see Pongr evolve in ways that mobile consumers demand, we hope to share our insights, experiences, and suggestions through this blog.

Update: We have now made over 50 entries to this mobile marketing and image recognition blog (over the past few years) and figured it might be interesting to go back and read some of our posts. In so doing, we wanted to briefly update a few entries where we said we would set out to build the world’s leading mobile marketing image recognition platform. Well, we have. Pongr has now been used by some of the biggest brands in the world to make print, product packaging, out-of-home billboards, in-store marketing and other point-of-purchase AND TV ads part of our image recognition network. We do not keep image recognition turned on for every brand anymore, but we can activate media extremely quickly and offer the most robust, scalable solution in the world when it comes to brand and advertiser specific needs.

Pongr has evolved from a scientific experiment into a fully packaged mobile marketing vendor that brings customizable social games, brand recognition capabilities, APIs to support premium smart phone apps on iPhone and Android, and of course the visual search technology. We are now used by brands on several continents and on pretty much all major wireless carriers (that we know of) including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Orange, and others.

We’re guessing that this updated entry is still just the beginning of what will happen in the world of image recognition and visual search when it comes to mobile marketing. Today we’re hearing more and more about AR (augmented reality), although there is still a lot of work to be done. We suspect that in a few years we’ll see the combination of on-screen AR techniques blended with platforms like Pongr’s to create unique and authentic brand experiences for both consumers and the brands themselves.

Our stance on 2D barcodes remains unchanged: they suck. QR codes were not a good solution in 2009 for most consumer brands and they’re not a good solution in 2011. There are still too many formats, too many possible on-device applications, way too much confusion among advertising agencies (even the mobile marketing experts at agencies can’t decide on which formats are best).

As we’ve said before, QR codes have a place, but it’s not on consumer packaged goods, certainly not on luxury goods, and pretty much never on traditional TV media unless you want to totally muck-up your creative.  Image recognition, on the other hand, is a seamless, natural, always available way to create a direct-response mobile marketing content loop from existing media.

Piqued your interest? Give us a ring or shoot us an email to learn how Pongr’s mobile marketing experts can help you!

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