Over the past few years, we’ve seen mobile technology revolutionize the way we interact with the world around us. Sometimes though, in the pursuit of the next big thing, well-intentioned marketers can lose sight of what their customers really like — or even understand.

While traditionally used in commercial shipping applications, many marketers and businesses have adopted QR codes as a potential way to connect with customers. For the unfamiliar: QR codes are the black and white square patterns popping up everywhere — from business cards to store windows.

Are QR codes the future of mobile marketing or are they marked for extinction? Here’s a look at some of the pros and cons of QR codes, as well as an investigation into what might be the next big thing in mobile marketing technology.

The Promise of QR Codes

Advocates see QR codes as a simple way to share digital information to a mobile device. In theory, the idea is sound. A smartphone owner could photograph a QR code he or she sees in an advertisement, a store window, and so on, and a link would automatically open to a desired web location. The code could contain a trackable link which lets the company know how many people looked at its ads and potentially track the action’s return on investment.

For marketers and businesses alike, QR codes sound like a great idea, until you dig a bit deeper. The reality often pales in comparison to the potential for this particular marketing method.

QR Reality

The large number of variables involved in the application of QR codes has hindered its widespread adoption. For example, QR codes are not owned by any one company and the concept hasn’t had any marketing of its own to introduce the technology to consumers. As a result, many people still have no idea what QR codes are.

To further complicate matters, most phones do not come with QR readers pre-installed. If an individual wants to scan a QR code, he or she will need to get a special app to do so. How are people supposed to find this out, considering most QR codes are presented without context and there is no standard app associated with the technology?

Once customers have the application they need installed on their phones, they need to make sure they can get close enough and frame the QR code correctly. While QR code technology does include error correction, it is far from flawless. If there is a reflection or glare from a flash, the code could scan incorrectly.

Then there is the question of the code’s actual data. Companies often use QR codes to link to Twitter accounts or Facebook Pages. What if your customer doesn’t use those services? This could be a turn off. You could include a description of what the code does, but why not just include a text link for the customer to type? This is especially bad in physical, retail locations. Do you want your customers interacting with their phones trying to figure out how to scan your code, or would you rather that they interact with you directly? In most cases, simple text-based product information would serve you better than a QR code.

Are QR Codes a Joke?

QR codes have been so badly misused by marketers that they have begun to become a joke among the tech savvy. Blogs like “WTF QR Codes” and “Pictures of People Scanning QR Codes” have become popular for making fun of the technology’s failings.

Despite these misgivings, there are times where QR codes can work well. In instances like shipping, loyalty cards and airplane boarding passes, QR codes can be a powerful technology for handing off information from your customer to a machine. The common thread in these examples is that customers are not the ones scanning the codes, and they are not required to have any knowledge about how the codes work. This is the opposite of QR codes’ application in marketing, but is clearly how the technology should be used.

When considering a technology to use for your company, always consider whether it’s adding or removing complexity. Technology should adapt to its users, not the other way around. If you keep this in mind, you won’t make the same mistake many other businesses and marketers have made in jumping on the QR code bandwagon.

What’s Next?

Even the few practical applications for QR codes may have their days numbered. Near Field Communication (NFC) chips — coming in future mobile devices — promise to wirelessly and securely pass information from our devices to other machines. This functionality could wipe out QR codes for good and even offer some of the advanced functionality marketers are looking for.

Our recommendation: You and your business should sit out the QR code trend and take a wait-and-see approach as NFC gains a foothold. We suspect you’ll be glad you did.

What’s your take on QR Codes? Share your thoughts in the comments.

[Image credits: John Morrison, Sergio Uceda]