The American market may be quick to catch onto some things, but the adoption of QR codes has not been one of them. The two-dimensional bar codes, that point to a destination online when captured with a smartphone, have taken off in some markets (they're huge in Japan!) but have not been met with widespread adoption stateside.
This week, Google announced a broad plan to introduce QR code stickers in the windows of over 100,000 local businesses nationwide. Could this be the tipping point that imbeds the QR code in the American conscience? Well, that will depend on a few things.
For starters, Google will have to get consumers to actually interact with the things on a widespread basis. The search giant is already trying to incite retailer interest by caling its program Favorite Places. The curated tone will likely encourage retailers to sign up for a spot on the list. Now if consumers start taking the bait, it could work. And Google might just end up cornering another digital marketplace.
These two-dimensional bar codes have been trialed in all sorts of advertising campaigns, from print to stickers on all sorts of surfaces. Many brands — from Louis Vuitton's use of Murakami to Esquire's recent Sherlock Holmes tie in — have helped close the loop between the offline and online worlds.
But as of yet, QR codes have not become a common occurence for American consumers. Google is hoping to change that with Favorite Places.
A few weeks ago the search giant added a mobile couponing option to its Google Local Business Center listing, meaning that mobile search results now often include mobile coupons redeemable at local retailers. This week Google launched "Favorite Places on Google," which includes venues in over 9,000 towns and cities across the country that will have a Google created (and QR enabled) sticker in their windows.
Restaurants and other retailers have long been in the habit of putting quality stickers in their windows (reviews, Zagat ratings, positive newspaper and magazine features), but this effort would result in more real time information. It could also lead to more informed — and happier consumers.
Google isn't the first to do this, they just might be the ones to get it off the ground. According to AdAge:
Citysearch pilot-tested a similar program in San Francisco back in March of 2008. In that trial, 500 businesses reviewed by Citysearch placed printed Scanbuy's brand of bar codes in their windows. Scanning the photo with Scanbuy's software would send you to the business' corresponding Citysearch page where you can read reviews and other information.
Around the same time, QVC and Case Western University did some trials in which students could scan QR codes on outdoor print signage. These codes let users get campus bus arrival times, order magazines, enter sweepstakes and get text alerts from USA Today, among other applications.
Beyond being a bigger player than Citysearch or QVC, Google has enabled their coupons to be read by any QR code reader, which is a big step toward wider adoption. (A brand specific reader is one of the things that has hobbled Microsoft's entry into the arena, Tag.)
But Google making a play in the space is no guarantee that it will take off. The search giant has made previous efforts with these square codes. Placing QRs in newspaper ads drove 6.5 times more revenue than the ads without embedded codes, but they still failed to deliver expected results, and Google killed the campaign this January.
While QR code adoption has been slow to take off in the U.S., some of the obstacles have been eliminated recently. Last year, when Case Western's trial seemed to implode, search advisor Andrew Miller said QR codes weren't just around the corner for U.S. markets because “adoption rates will be slowed by the expense and low penetration of broadband-enabled phones with data plans.”
Now that consumers are quickly gobbling up smartphone models, it's easier to find phones that can translate the codes. But the method of delivery is still unproven. Zagat's established itself as a player in the restaurant business over a long period of time. Google does not have the same clout when it comes to restaurant reviews. And while smartphone users may be excited to scan a QR code on a window of an establishment that they've walked up to, that smartphone is the same reason that they can just as easily find out the information they want before they get there.