Using QR Codes? You’re Probably Doing It Wrong

You’re likely seeing a dramatic increase in the use of QR codes in marketing materials lately. Despite being around for quite some time, they’re really beginning to be recognized by marketers as a great way to integrate online and offline marketing efforts. And it makes sense; smartphone use continues to rise – Comscore reports that 82.2 million Americans have one now. Comscore also reports that 14 million Americans scanned a QR code in June 2011 alone.  The demographics tend to skew towards young, affluent males, so if that is your target audience QR codes can be of immense benefit to your campaign.

The huge benefit of using QR codes is in how many ways they can be implemented. A QR code can be placed almost anywhere; on print materials such as flyers, posters, and product packaging, or even displayed on websites. The single most common place I’ve seen them is in advertising in restaurant bathrooms. The bar codes that are created can display a phone number, email address or plain text message. The most common use is to direct the user to a URL.

The Problem with QR Codes

Sending the user to a URL is where QR codes often fail. Marketers seem to forget that, while you’re using the QR code to connect your audience with your online presence, it’s actually your mobile online presence. Because people are scanning the codes with their phones. Sometimes even while they’re peeing.

You can’t just serve them your desktop website.

Yes, technically, most smartphone browsers these days can render a desktop website, but it’s certainly not an ideal experience for your user.

Today I got a flyer in the mail from a local pizza place, with a QR code going to their desktop website. Despite being nearly un-readable on my BlackBerry, it took a long time to load, devouring my data along with it.  Scott Stratten ranted about this same problem amongst realtors the other day. I’ve recently even seen QR codes that point to sites built completely in Flash.

How to Use QR Codes Successfully

If you’re considering using QR codes in any of your campaigns, keep the following in mind:

  • Don’t print QR codes on glossy paper. The reflection from the camera’s flash or overhead lighting will make reading the code impossible.
  • Use an appropriate size for your printed QR code. Codes smaller than 1.5 inches square can be difficult for a user to focus on, even when holding the device up to the code. The greater the distance the code will be scanned from, the larger it should be displayed.
  • Screen resolution for mobile devices ranges from 240×320 pixels for older BlackBerrys to 640×960 pixels for the iPhone 4 retina display. Your website should be able to display without horizontal scrolling on a wide range of resolutions; whether you accomplish that with a fluid design or device-specific layouts and CSS is up to you.
  • Keep mobile websites lightweight and fast-loading. Not all users will have the latest 4G device; they could be using a 3 year old phone on the Edge network, or inside a building with a poor signal.
  • Don’t use Flash! iOS devices and BlackBerrys can’t load it.
  • Keep use of JavaScript and HTML5 to a minimum. While newer devices with Webkit-based browsers can handle these technologies, older devices will struggle.
  • Keep calls-to-action simple. Typing on mobile devices can be difficult, so don’t require users fill out long forms.

Bonus tip: Direct your QR code to a URL with campaign tracking parameters so you can monitor the results in your web analytics.

Sending mobile users to websites they can’t access is killing your ROI, and making you look stupid in the process. With a little common sense, you too can have a successful QR code campaign.

Photo: clevercupcakes/flickr

About Dawn Smith

Dawn Wentzell is currently working in custom mobile app development as Project Manager, Mobile Technology at SpeakFeel Corporation. She has experience with SEO for both local businesses and national markets, loves to do site audits and hates IIS hosting. You can find her at or on twitter at @saffyre9.

Filed under: Featured, Tips


Jeff Brown

We help business owners market and brand their company better through interactive print and mobile websites. It’s nice to see someone else write about the basics and the right and wrong things to do when creating a QR code and a mobile website.

I’ll bookmark the site and reference it and show my clients. Thank you.

Greg Taylor

I saw a huge QR fail this weekend. All over Southwest Airline’s in-flight magazine there were QR codes on close to every ad. The problem was that this publication is viewed almost exclusively on a plane where only a minority of people have wi-fi access. Thanks for your post.

Brian LaFrance

lol…yes it was 🙂

Good example of marketing departments not having a clue who they are targeting and why they are targeting them.


Great article for people like me just starting out, but there are so many other things you can do with a QR code and just wondered if anyone could point me in the direction of some information about how successful the use of Vcards in QR codes is for example and if the fancy ones get more attention than the plain black & white ones?

Dawn Wentzell

Awesome question Lottie. I haven’t seen actual stats; I imagine that data is held pretty close to the chest by the sites that create QR codes 🙂

Some anecdotal info for you though… I would say actual vcards (.vcf format) are probably pretty low. My BlackBerry can’t handle that file format and barfs all over itself when presented with one. But simple web pages with contact info I would imagine are more successful. As for fancy vs. plain I couldn’t say 🙂


Thank you very much, very useful to know that Blackberrys can’t handle the format 🙂

Sharleen Sy

Great article! I think you addressed one of the biggest pain points for me regarding QR codes which often lead users to generic web sites…it’s painful to try to read a full-sized web site on a smartphone. We offer a product called Carddit that automatically generates a QR Code for every card made – so when you scan in the QR code, you are given a card on your iPhone to collect and keep. Cards can have photos, text, Animated GIFs, links to other pages, coupons, and streaming videos. Here is an example card I made quickly from your article: The QR Code was automatically generated and takes you to the card, so you can collect it in Carddit. Wouldn’t it be a better UX to offer users a virtual gift for scanning in a code? Potentially turning them into fans? And those fans can trade/share cards with other iphones via Bluetooth or the QR Codes. Would love to hear your thoughts on this. Thanks!


Hi Dawn,

Give a try! Generate, Edit and Track your Dynamic QR Codes and MS TAG’s in seconds. There’s a Free package available with great features! Hope you like it..

Very best wishes,



I have created a Soundslide program for my portfolio and want to have it accessable when you scan the QR code. I created a QR code with the url address, scaned it and it would not open….’you do not have permission to view….’
The link is on my servers ftp site and will open on my competer…. any suggestions?

Dawn Wentzell

Hi Tom,

Does the URL you’re trying to access via the QR code contain ftp:// ? From what I can tell, mobile browsers cannot access that protocol in the same way desktop browsers might be able to. Your best bet is to host it on a web server, with a URL that begins with http://, and create the QR code for that.


Love the article, just wish there was a email link so I can send to myself or others.

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