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?

Building Relationships part 1

This is part of a series of post about building relationships online and the relationships we build online.

The initial idea was triggered by reading in one of the books for TECH 621 about marketable relationships. Marketable relationships were defined as relationships we build for the sake of the relationship, without expecting an immediate reward. However, the rewards, often in the form of employment, speaking engagements, etc., come as a result of having these connections. Nothing new here. This is how connections work.

I don’t particularly like the term “marketable relationships,” but luckily, the concept does go by another name: social capital.

Social capital was defined by Bourdieu as one of three types of capital:

  1. economic (financial resources)
  2. cultural (knowledge resources)
  3. social (connections, acquaintances, people we know who could do us favors)

Putnam (the one who wrote Bowling Alone) further broke down the concept of social capital into 2 sub-types: bonding and bridging capital.

  1. bonding capital = close relationships  among homogeneous groups (birds of a feather, your close group of friends, family, etc).
  2. bridging capital = loose connections with diverse people. It is out of these types of connections that most benefits and innovations emerge.

So, here are some hypotheses:

  • Many people use Facebook to maintain bonding capital
  • Many people use Twitter to build and maintain bridging capital

Are these the predominant uses of Facebook vs. Twitter? To how many people do these hypotheses apply? Do they apply to you? Are the trends changing towards Facebook becoming more open to loose connections and to building bridging capital? i.e. do you “friend” people you don’t know very well?

[update 10/25: Facebook’s new News Feed vs Live feed feature makes Facebook technology more conducive to maintaining bonding capital, because the algorithm selects the updates to show you in the News Feed based on the previous level of interaction -connection depth?- with that person.]

Next posts in this series:

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.

Listening is not enough

I just came back from SNCR’s New Communications Forum, a conference I thoroughly enjoyed. There was a lot of talk about PR 2.0, 3.0, new strategies, new tactics, new tools, and a cultural revolution in the way we (should) practice the strategic communication professions (PR, marketing, advertising, etc.). You are all familiar with the tenets of this cultural revolution from books such as the Cluetrain Manifesto, Join the Conversation, Naked conversations, and the blogs of many social media-savvy professionals (see blogroll).

The conversations indicate an evolution, if not a revolution of PR from media relations to relationship management. PR isn’t/shouldn’t be only about making noise, raising awareness, and counting eyeballs. It should be about relationships. Fine. So how are companies supposed to do this? THE answer is: LISTEN.

Listening means setting up search alerts and monitoring everything that’s said about your organization online (on blogs, twitter, flickr, facebook, etc.).

So once you find out what people say about you, what do you do? You respond. You correct misperceptions. You clarify misunderstandings. You show the poor bastards you were right, after all.

But what if you were wrong?

Listening without authentic openness to change is not enough. It’s not PR 2.0. It’s just audience research, a tool used in what we boring academics call scientific persuasion.

The more you listen, the better you know what makes your audience tick, the better able you are to persuade them. Ca-ching!

Nope, this is not PR 2.0. It’s PR 1.0 on several small channels instead of a few large ones.

PR 2.0 involves not only listening, but being open to make organizational changes as a result of naked conversations (known in academic circles as dialogue). This is what relationships are about. Partners in a relationship change to adapt to each other.


Because ultimately PR is not about listening, not about conversations, not about relationships. What’s the point of listening? Why do you engage in conversation? Why build relationships? What’s the end goal?

No, it’s not brand awareness. It’s not increased sales. It’s not improved reputation.

PR is (OK, should be, or can be) about optimizing your organization’s survival in its environment.

Think about it: Your organization operates in a complex society. Its survival and operations influence and are influenced by a large number of audiences (aka stakeholders). For all to survive and thrive, they need to be constantly adapting to each other. I think that’s called nimbleness.

Is it fair or even wise for the organization to be attempting to constantly change its environment through persuasion, but not be open to changing itself?

We know what happens to organisms that don’t adapt to their environments.

So it’s PR’s role to facilitate the mutual adaptation of organization and its environment. This is why naked conversations and relationships are important.

Now, don’t quote on me on that. All I’ve done is explain a major PR theory. One that has thought of PR 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, and 4.0 since 1984. If you want to cite someone, start with Grunig, J. E., & Hunt, T. (1984). Managing public relations. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston.

The reason why Dell is the model for PR 2.0 is because they follow listening with real changes in the organization’s products and processes, not just talk-back.


[Edit:] Geoff Livingston’s post this morning about his experience with JetBlue provides a clear illustration to my theoretical point.