QR Codes: (When) Do They Work?

I recently had an interesting conversation (actually, a couple of them) about QR Codes -Are they the next big thing? Will they save paper advertising?


As Nelu Lazar of Nehloo Interactive rightfully points out, QRCs are not so “next” – they’ve been around for more than 15 years. But, with the increasing popularity of smartphones, QRCs are crossing over from industrial uses into the consumer market.

So, are they the next big thing? I personally don’t think so. Based on what we know about human behavior, it seems to me that for the individual the cost of using QRCs exceeds the benefits. Let me explain.

Theories of human behavior, decision making, models of how humans navigate the Web and search for information – such as Information Foraging Theory (IFT) all agree that humans are inherently programmed to conserve energy – aka, to be lazy. There’s a quick cost/benefit analysis that goes on in our minds before we decide to engage in a behavior. And most often, we take the short, easy route. That’s why they tell you not to put important information on you website 2 clicks away. That extra click is effort (a cost), and many people will not expend it. So, the golden rule of Web usability, marketing, persuasion: MAKE IT EASY.

The reason why I do not believe in QRCs is because there are too many costs associated with them. In most situations where I see QRCs used, the cost/benefit analysis suggests that audience members will not use them. Let’s count the costs:


  1. You need to download an application on your phone.
  2. When you see a QRC, you need to pull out your phone, then:
  3. Turn it
  4. Navigate to the application
  5. Launch the application
  6. Take a photo
  7. Wait for the photo to be uploaded/processed
  8. Wait for the information to download
  9. Look at the site, video, etc. that the QRC links to

Some of these steps are based on assumptions that may not hold true:


  • The assumption that you have a smartphone
  • The assumption that your network speed is high enough that the waiting time is very short
  • The assumption that the photo produces a good enough image for the code to work
  • The assumption that people want to get more information on their smartphones. I think some research is needed into the “get more information” behavior. It may be that when people are in “get more information” mode they want to be able to access it conveniently on a larger screen, where they have faster connection speeds, anyway. How many more steps would it take to get that information to your computer?

Given the many steps involved in using QRCs, the user needs to be highly motivated, either intrinsically, or by the benefits you offer at the other end. So, before you decide to use QRCs, I’d advise you to think about:


  • User motivation – what are some situations in which users are highly motivated to get to the next action, or to get more information? These are situations when users need something, rather than you needing to sell them something.
  • Benefits – if users are not motivated by some sufficiently powerful need, what benefits are you offering at the other end, that make it worth the cost of clicking through? Not only do you have to make sure that those benefits are large enough, but you also need to think about:
  • Communicating those benefits – I see many QRC codes that are mysteries. I have no idea what’s at the other end. In IFT terms, they have low to none information scent. You need to communicate clearly and convincingly what’s waiting on the other side, so the user can make an informed cost/benefit analysis.

I usually am an early adopter. I love new and shiny things. But I am very skeptical about QRC. Nelu pointed me to this blog post with ideas about using QRCs in education. They all sound need, but what problem do QRCs solve that cannot be solved more easily by using email or other form of digital communication? I rarely give any paper materials to students, if ever. So I do not need a link from physical to virtual space, because all of my written communication with students is digital, anyway.

To provide the other side of the story, I leave you with some readings that argue for QRCs:


But, I want to hear from you about evidence: When have QRCs worked for you? What numbers do you have that show the percentage of users who click through? I am interested in evidence that would prove me wrong – if you know of any, please post it in the comments below.

[Update, March 29, 2011] RWW covers a survey study on QR code usage.

What is going wrong for Jamie Oliver?

If you’ve been following Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution project, you saw that things are not going very well for him. The latest publicity stunt, in LA was attended by only 20 parents…

This is such an obviously good cause, in my opinion, that, just like Jamie, I am stunned. Why is he having so much trouble getting through to people? What is going wrong for him? What could he be doing wrong? I feel bad for the people he could be helping but isn’t, and, since he’s so adorable, I feel bad for him, too.

I’ve asked this question on Twitter, and people have come up with interesting answers about fighting the institutional powers, ingrained culture, years of advertising. They all make sense, and I am sure there are way more explanations than I can think of, but here’s my take:

Since Jamie is trying to change a well-ingrained health behavior, maybe theory can help him? Here, I turn to EPPM, a theory that’s been used a lot to change health-related behaviors.

EPPM is a theory that explains when fear appeals work or fail: When they persuade people to engage in the advocated behavior, and when they do not.

First, for fear appeals to work, they have to produce a moderate level of fear – too little, and there’s no motivation to take action; too much, and people freak out and retreat into denial. So, how do you produce a moderate level of fear? That’s a bit more of an art than a science, but one thing is clear: You have to show that the threat (the unhealthy behavior) is relevant to the target audience and is sufficiently severe. In other words, you have to answer the questions:

  • Could this happen to me? –and:
  • If it happens to me, how bad could it be?

So, let’s see how Jamie is doing. One of his preferred strategies is to show people, literally all the junk they’re putting into their (children’s) bodies: a busload of sugar, 2 gallons of lard. In terms of relevance, the message is clear: yes, this happens to me, I’m the one eating all this in my school’s cafeteria. But in terms of severity, there’s a disconnect. OK, so I ingest a busload of sugar… so what? What’s the problem with that? I think it’s possible that Jamie’s strategy is not driving the message all the way home. It is not helping people understand the consequences of eating a busload of sugar. How bad is it? What can happen to me? I’m feeling fine, thank you. Now, show me someone who suffers from health problems because of having eaten too much sugar, and I may begin to think about it. But make the example too scary and I’ll freak out and shut down. Jamie may be assuming his audience has more knowledge about the dangers of poor nutrition than they already do. This could be why his message fails at the severity level.

But let’s assume that Jamie manages to deliver a message that communicates both relevance and severity. That’s still not enough. According to EPPM, two more factors are needed for the message to be persuasive: response-efficacy and self-efficacy.

Response efficacy refers to the belief that the behavior Jamie is advocating is capable of actually solving the problem. Basically, that serving healthier school lunches would solve the scary health problems… but wait, he hasn’t quite established those in the first place, as far as I know.

Self-efficacy refers to the belief that the person is actually capable of practicing the advocated behavior. Here is where I see a double-layer of problems. At the parent level, it is possible that parents do not feel capable of feeding their children healthier food. I don’t know why, but I’d recommend Jamie do some research and find out. Could it be because they are overwhelmed by the amount of new information they need to learn about nutrition? Could it be because they don’t have the time to cook healthy? Could it be because they can’t afford healthy foods? At the school level, school administrators have to feel they are capable of delivering healthy school lunches now and in the long term. I assume these are poorly-paid, overwhelmed people, who all of a sudden have to figure out a whole new system of food purchasing, delivery, storage, and preparation. Not only is it adding work to an already exhausted system, but it is difficult, and probably expensive to sustain in the long-run. Low self-efficacy, on both the part of the parents and school administrators, may explain why Jamie’s message is not getting through.

But wait, there’s more. EPPM predicts that if people perceive a threat (something bad could happen to me – meaning the message communicates both relevance and severity), if either response efficacy or self-efficacy is low, instead of taking action to get rid of the threat (in this case, start eating healthy), they will take action to reduce their fear. This kind of action is counter-productive. It involves freaking out, tuning out, or denying there is a threat in the first place. I think this is happening to Jamie’s audience. Parents may be engaging in fear control processes, trying to manage their fear, instead of managing the threat. This could explain why Jamie seems to be failing to persuade people, why his message is not accepted and people are not engaging in the behavior he advocates.

If it helps you keep track of how EPPM works, here is a diagram that explains it:

This post is from the series For the Love of Theory, meant not only to help adorable Jamie, but also to demonstrate the power of theory and its capacity to make a difference in the world.

But, what other explanations do you have, about what’s going wrong for Jamie?

Coming up: Total chaos?

In one of my previous posts I tried to explain how one’s sense of self emerges through interaction with other people.

The direct consequence of this dynamic is the idea of the relational self:

The relational self is the self in relationships. We are different selves to different (groups of) people.

This is not wrong, dishonest, or flip-flopping. It is not schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder. It is healthy adaptation, both from a psychological and communication point of view. It may even be social intelligence.

Some groups are more important to us and our identity than others: They have more of an impact on who we are, because they are more important to us (significant others). We call those reference groups.

Depending on the groups with whom we interact and on context, social psychologists claim that we have situation prototypes, relational schemas – or, simply put, scripts for proper interaction in common situations.

For example, we have the script for proper interaction at a restaurant with friends, at a restaurant with clients, at a restaurant on a first date, etc.

These scripts (social norms) guide our social interactions. Not only do they help us figure out what is the appropriate thing to say in a given situation, they also help us anticipate an outcome of communication (if I say this, then… ) and, most importantly, they help us interpret the meaning of messages.

The same thing, said by someone else, in a different context, means something else – aka meaning is context-dependent.

So, hold on, this argument is taking you somewhere. Are you with me? Let’s sum it up: The relational self depends on social groups, communication scripts depend on social groups and contexts, meaning depends on social groups and contexts.

Integration of different social networking platforms (Facebook with Twitter with LinkedIn with … peanut butter,  with chocolate, with mamaliga with vegemite) mixes up social groups and social contexts and therefore, messes up meaning.

Yes, it may be easy to cross-post from Twitter to Facebook and LinkedIn, and in some situations, it may even make sense. But, don’t be fooled. Just because it’s easy and it can be done, it may not be a good idea to do it.

Keep in mind that the meaning of your tweet depends on:

  • your relational self – who you are in relation to the people you’re interacting with (if they’re different on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, you and the meaning of your words are different, too)
  • social context – and the types of conversations appropriate in each context
  • social group – and your relationships with each group.

So, we have to be careful here and maybe NOT take advantage of all the technology has to offer. The result may very well be misunderstanding, miscommunication, frustration, and, to quote Adrian Chan, total chaos.

Building relationships part 3

This is a post in a series about building relationships online. Previous posts:

1. Building relationships part 1 – bridging and bonding social capital

2. Building relationships part 2 – drawing on Dale Carnegie to build relationships on Twitter

In this post, I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite communication theories (and if I say that about almost any communication theory, I mean it):  symbolic interactionism.

I won’t explain the entire theory here, just say that it is a theory about how meaning comes about: through social interaction (communication). One of the meanings that emerges through social interaction is the sense of self. We acquire a sense of self, of who we are and what we are like, through interacting with others. One of the ways in which this happens is that we see ourselves in others as if reflected in a mirror. We grow to believe what we see in those mirrors.

That explains why, when faced with people who believe we’re stupid, we second-guess ourselves, we become stupid. When around people who believe in us, we raise up to those expectations. It explains the influence parents have on us – they are the mirrors we see ourselves in when we’re little and fragile, and those mirrors influence who we become (reason 65,492 why I’m scared to become a parent). It explains Theory X and theory Y in management and education.

Of course, there are several factors that come into play, and we can’t entirely hold others accountable for who we are. But to a large extent, who we are depends on our history of human interaction, according to symbolic interactionism.

We seek people in whose mirrors we see images of us we like  – as we should.

So now, let me turn this around, and apply it to building relationships online. You are a mirror. You reflect others’ images back to them. How do people see themselves in your mirror?

Ask yourself – what must this person think I think about them? Who do they think I think they are? How do they see themselves in the mirror that I am?

Your attitude and beliefs about people, as manifested in your communication, form this mirror.  Do you show the best in people, or are you  the kind of mirror that emphasizes the weaknesses, the negatives?

One way of building relationships (online and off) is being the kind of mirror people seek to look into, because they like what they see, or because they’re amused, or because it helps them grow – or just because, it makes them feel good.

So, remember, how you see people is often how they come to see themselves – especially if they’re young and fragile.

Being quite a critical spirit myself, I struggle with the burden of the practical implications of this theory.

There are implications for personal relationships, but also for management, education, PR, marketing, advertising, Web usability, to name a few.

What sense do you make of this?

Can PR save a company?

There’s some discussion in the blogosphere about GM’s social media and crisis communication strategies these days, when they just filed for bankruptcy.

The arguments motivated me to finally start a new series of posts, For the Love of Theory.

In response to the question: Can PR save a company? I’d like to offer and overview of a “classic” PR theory, that of Issue Management.

PR can save a company, but not if it’s used to “get the message across”: If it’s used to listen, monitor and analyze issues, to enable the organization to adapt to its environment in a timely manner.

This is exactly what GM failed to do, and what the theory of Issue Management explains:


The theory posits that any issue in society (i.e. environmentalism, vegetarianism, etc.) has a lifecycle that revolves from dormant (no one thinks about it) to potential, as a few selected people start considering it, to imminent, when it starts picking up speed and media attention, to current, when it’s in the center of the public’s and the media’s attention, to critical, when the issue is demanding a solution. After being “resolved,” the issue goes back into the dormant stage, but it can wake up again at a later time.

The Issue Management function of public relations (which is thought of, at least in academic circles, as much more than media relations & publicity) is to continuously:

– scan the environment

– identify issues that can affect the organization

– analyze these issues to determine if action is necessary

– bring the issues to the attention of higher management, along with action recommendations

– design, implement, evaluate communication strategies around the issue (you often see companies taking positions on social or political issues)

Depending on how late/early a company identifies the issue and takes action, it can follow a reactive strategy (implementing actions imposed by others), an adaptive, dynamic, or even catalytic strategy – in this one, the company wakes an issue up from the dormant stage and moves it through the entire life cycle.

Of course, the earlier the company intervenes, the more power it has to frame the issue and to influence public discussion.

Can you see now how the issue management function of PR could have saved GM?

Many rhetorical scholars‘ view of PR is:

The good organization speaking well*

PR is widely understood as the “speaking well” part, but if the PR function is used strategically, and is given a seat at the management table, it is its job not only to speak well, but to help the organization be good.

Ultimately, the PR function can help an organization adapt to its environment (and change the environment to suit it better).

For GM, it’s a bit late. But I hope you can see now how PR can help an organization adapt, survive, and thrive. It’s just time we moved past the “free publicity” paradigm of PR and catch up to a bigger picture understanding of what PR can do for an organization.

If you’re interested in reading more:

Chase, W. H. (1977). Public issue management: The new science. Public Relations Journal, 32(10), 25-26.

* Cheney, G.D. (1992). The corporate person (re)presents itself, in: E. Lance Toth, R.L. Heath (Eds.), Rhetorical and Critical Approaches to Public Relations, Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, p. 167.

Crable, R. E., & Vibbert, S. L. (1985). Managing issues and influencing public policy. Public Relations Review, 11(2), 3-16.

Heath, R.J., & Palenchar, M.J. (2008). Strategic Issues Management 2. Sage.