What was the year? 2009? 2010? QR codes were 'the next big thing'. They had such great promise. Turn any print advertisement, packaging or promotional experience into a digital touchpoint.

Richer engagement. Richer analytics. But they never delivered. (Some people perpetually say 'next year' is the year for mass adoption).

But there is one technology that comes pre-installed on 100% of handsets and which can exceed both the engagement and analytics that QR codes promised.

The problem with QR codes


The biggest barrier is ubiquity. A majority of smartphones don't come with QR code readers pre-installed.

Even for consumers who go get the app, the steps involved have massive drop off rates: finding the app, loading it and lining up the image to get it in focus.

Let's face it, no real person knows what a QR code is or how to use it. You and I might, but we're digital marketers.

Real people don't.

Poor old QR codes.

How to achieve what QR codes promised

Luckily for us marketers, there is a great alternative technology out there that real people know how to use. That technology? SMS.

You're about to press the back button or close the tab, but trust me on this one, this is SMS like you haven't seen it before.

Imagine any use case you've ever seen for a QR code, but with an SMS call to action instead.

Like O2 Telefonica uses in its TV ad below.

O2 Freedom - YouTube

(It's worth noting that almost every mobile carrier uses SMS as their direct response call to action. They know a thing or two about mobile marketing)

But where SMS really excels these days is in auto-responding to SMS with a branded message and web link.

These links deliver the two key promises of QR codes (this is the most important part of the article):

  • Rich Experiences: SMS responses can link to signup forms, surveys, competitions, videos, maps, social sharing, click-to-call buttons and much much more. By adding an SMS call to action (instead of a QR code), every type of web engagement you can think of can now be delivered through print, outdoor, TV and radio.
  • Rich Analytics: With rich web experiences comes rich web analytics. Individual responses (for follow up and re-marketing) and real time location and device data can be tracked. 

Don't underestimate SMS

It may not be "the next big thing", but here's a quick refresher on SMS as a marketing too.

  • 6bn text messages are sent every single day in the United States alone.
  • 100% of smartphones sold today have the SMS app pre-installed.
  • The average American teenager sends a staggering 2,000 text messages sent every month.

When compared to a traditional web based call to action, SMS Direct Response campaigns received 325% more responses from consumers.

Attract TV viewers to your website

This case study shows how one business tried two calls to action on their TV ads.

One said "visit our website to enter the competition" and the other said "send an SMS to enter the competition".

The SMS call to action generated 325% more entries than the web-based call-to-action, making up 52% of the total entries, though it ran in only 25% of the ads.

Now imagine that response rate on any future campaign you run.

Every single customer could get an SMS reply with a link to a signup form, an ecommerce purchase page, a PayPal donation button, a Facebook page.

Companies like SparkPage Media, Text Local and Mobile Commons make it very easy to set up campaigns like this.

SMS 2.0

When I first saw QR codes I was excited. They had a lot of promise. But, as is so often the case, they fell down at the details.

SMS was exciting too. It was widely adopted and had huge response rates. But with only 160 characters of text it was a limited channel.

The smartphone age is about to marry the promise of these two technologies.

That should make us very, very excited.

Peter Tanham

Published 6 December, 2013 by Peter Tanham

Peter Tanham is CEO of SparkPage.com and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can connect on LinkedIn, Google Plus, or Twitter.

4 more posts from this author

You might be interested in

Comments (10)

Save or Cancel


Are you sure?

SMS are invasive marketing, period. Have you ever heard about "permission marketing"?

QR-Codes may have not taken off yet, but if you don't want to scan on you just don't. Advertisers have to think on smarter usages, and thinking takes time.

If a campaign/product sucks, no matter if you use QRs, bluetooth or SMS to try to sell it.

I'm a very big fan of econsultancy blog, but this "guest-blogger-post" looks to me more like a "paid-by-a-PR-Agency-spammer-post".

When one has nothing but money, that the only thing they can use.

PS. I would not void QR-Codes so fast... ;)

over 4 years ago


Rob Parker

QR codes were one of the first attempts at creating "The Internet of Things". However, as the article mentioned there were a few glitches in the implementation. If done properly, SMS can be permission based, or consumer initiated and be implemented many times with little additional expenses.

over 4 years ago

Peter Tanham

Peter Tanham, CEO at SparkPage.com


Thanks for your comments.

What I've described here is all 100% permission based. It's the evolution of placing a 1800 number on your print advertising for direct response.

The definition Seth gives is "Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them."

If somebody sees your ad, decides to send an SMS and gets a response does that not qualify as an anticipated, personal and relevant message to somebody who wants to get it?

Nothing in the article encourages push or interruption based marketing (i.e. the ineffective stuff!)

I'm sorry you didn't like the style of the article. I tried to keep the tone light hearted, sprinkled a bit of humour but also gave real facts and case studies to back up the theory.

If you don't want to write off any possible future for QR codes in marketing, that fine, but that doesn't change the fact that it's mostly ineffective today!

over 4 years ago

Tim Watson

Tim Watson, Email Marketing Consultant at Zettasphere

SMS as an inbound channel for initial customer acquisition does work in offline media.

I was interested to see the 325% uplift on the TV Ad test you gave.

In this split test of publishing a URL against inbound SMS for customer capture there was a 330% uplift:


The clever part of inbound SMS here is to use it to collect an email address for further email communication.

On QR codes

I also have stats from my clients on tests of QR codes for initial customer acquisition as a call to action to bridge the gap of offline to online and QR codes don't work for this purpose.

QR codes might work in-store against products as a way for the high street to allow customers to bring up ratings/review/specs and more information about products.

over 4 years ago


Matt Lovell, Head of Customer Data, Insight & Analytics at Eurostar International Ltd.

Interesting article. I still think there is a barrier to SMS in that for most consumers, their immediate concern if they are asked to text in to a 5 digit SMS code is that they will suddenly find they've been charged £1.50 for the return message.

I still feel there has to be a better way to do this using NFC to allow people to engage without needing to send a text message in order to retrieve information (especially when you start to thin about scenarios where there may not be cellular signal to enable an SMS to be sent) but have yet to see a perfect scenario...

over 4 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Peter

Thanks for the article, interesting view on QR/SMS.

I think Tim hits the nail on the head - QR codes are often used as a DR mechanism on offline media but in my experience they're often ignored or not understood. I'd say that this is probably strongly influenced by poor execution e.g. QR code on an ad on the London Underground so you scan but can't load the webpage. The most amusing example i saw was on a rotating ad board at a station where the ads rotated too quickly for the scanner to capture the code!

So often poor implementation affects the results.

I do think that awareness of QR codes is still really low and i know plenty of retailers who have experimented with in-store displays to drive engagement. It can work but usually it's driven by providing added value e.g. freebies, discounts etc.

I also think @Matt makes a good point - there are concerns that by texting you'll get charged a crazy fee for the return message. That said, adoption of SMS is far far higher than QR.

Is it a one vs. the other situation? I'm not convinced. So it comes down to testing. I wouldn't personally write off QR codes until i'd tested use cases and learned if they can work, or if there is a small segment of the audience who will use them.


over 4 years ago


Jamil Kassam

Isn't SMS usage on the decline and being replaced by other forms of instant messaging, namely What's App?

over 4 years ago



So because most smart phone users arent savvy enough to install an app that will automatically launch a webpage we should all type a bunch of stuff into text and get back a text message?

Can SMS launch a webpage? or include a link maybe? I know QR hasnt taken off the way expected but this SMS thing seems like a step backwards to me. Maybe we should just go back to "dumb phones" if the majority of users aren't smart enough to work with a smart phone?

over 4 years ago


Matt Lovell, Head of Customer Data, Insight & Analytics at Eurostar International Ltd.

@ Joe

I'd argue that you're missing the point with 'because most smart phone users aren't savvy enough to install an app'. Ultimately as marketers if we want to engage with customers then we have to do so on their terms or they simply won't bigger engaging.

In the same way that people have designed websites with the most important content above the fold (because users don't like scrolling), have added search functionalities to the majority of customer facing websites (because customers want an easy way to find what they're looking for without having to navigate the entire site) and designed mobile enabled / responsive websites (because users aren't willing to constantly zoom in and out in order to navigate / make purchases on the desktop version) so we need to find ways to engage users / drive them to content from offline media in a way that is easy enough for most users to do happily...

I'm not suggesting SMS is definitely the answer but I think most people would agree QR codes aren't really cutting it currently...

over 4 years ago


Gareth Waters

I have to admit, Ive always had a bit of a soft spot for QR codes. I dont think they have really been tested to their limits creatively speaking. The problem I see is that so many designers and marketeers have used them as a lazy means to link to a website homepage (which as ironic as its quicker to simply type the url in) and dodgy placements on marketing literature has seen then become a bit of a laughing stock to be fair.

over 4 years ago

Save or Cancel

Enjoying this article?

Get more just like this, delivered to your inbox.

Keep up to date with the latest analysis, inspiration and learning from the Econsultancy blog with our free Digital Pulse newsletter. You will receive a hand-picked digest of the latest and greatest articles, as well as snippets of new market data, best practice guides and trends research.