Even Bill Cosby Can’t Make Bad QR Codes Funny


QR codes are exploding. They’re on posters, window storefronts, coasters at the bar, and some businesses are even putting them on billboards (hi, your customer is DRIVING!). But what I’m noticing even more than the sheer explosion of QR codes is that often the QR code campaign is doing little more than embarrassing the brand it’s associated with.
As you may have guessed, I have an example!

Tech savvy as I may be, I’m not typically the type to scan a QR code. As a lady who can never find my phone in my purse, it just seems like a lot of work for very little pay out. However, I’m a sucker for Bill Cosby. He’s funny, he’s inspirational, and he brings back delicious childhood memories of pudding. So when I noticed that the back of his new book I Didn’t Ask To Be Born (But I’m Glad I Was) (no aff) had a QR code on the back I thought, what the heck? This has to be good.

Five minutes later after I finally found my phone in my purse, I scanned the bar code. What did I get for my troubles?



The QR code led to a page with a giant video on it. A video that I can’t play via my Blackberry Bold. I waited a few seconds to see if something else would pop up, if there was something below the video (there’s not) or this page had anything to offer me other than a collection of Mr. Cosby’s social networking profiles and tweets containing his name. And when I realized it did not, I threw my phone back into my purse’s abyss, put the book down, and walked away.


Would I have purchased the book had there been something on that page that blew my socks off? I can’t know for sure, but there’s a good chance. I was emotional, I was in the buying mood and I was interacting with a brand that already had my trust. But I didn’t take a second look at the book after I felt like my time had already been wasted.

Of course, Mr. Cosby isn’t alone in creating a lackluster QR code experience. It’s very often the norm. To help combat that, below are seven tips for creating a better one. So people maybe don’t go away angry. Or, you know, go away at all.

7 Best Practices For Using QR Codes Successfully

1. Remember that QR Codes & Non-Mobile Content Don’t Mix

The goal of creating a QR code is to attract and create an experience for an on-the-go consumer via their mobile device. That means the content you send them to must LOAD on their mobile device. Avoid the Flash, the large images and Web site bloat. The content you’re directing people to should be optimized for a mobile device and focus on that mobile experience. Don’t lose sight of what you’re doing because you’re trying to wear your fancypants.

2. Have A Purpose For Your QR Code

The “QR” in QR code stands for “quick response”. Think about that and let it guide you through your use of this mobile technology. Think about what kind of “quick response” someone may need from your brand.

If you’re a real estate agent, maybe you want to put a QR code on the bottom of your For Sales signs to allow interested parties to get additional information about the listing they’re looking at. If you’re a local pub, then putting a QR code on your coasters to allow people to view your beer selection or your daily specials may be worthwhile. The key is to serve quick information that is contextually relevant right now.

Or if you’re Bissell trying to sell me a deep cleaning system, maybe use a QR code to direct me to videos, product information, reviews, and a user guide. Actually, that’s exactly what Bissell did and, hey, I purchased one on Sunday.

3. Match Your Content To The Purpose

When The Red Cross created a QR code to encourage people to donate to Japan relief efforts they created this QR code to get the message across.

When scanned, users were taken directly to a donate page. The code matched the intent matched the call to action. Message received.

4. Focus On The Experience

More than just having a purpose for yourself, have a purpose for me. Give me something that is worth the time it takes me to dig out my phone, scan the code, and then wait for something awesome to pop up in my browser. For example, I was surprised to find out after the fact that Bill Cosby has a mobile app. Through the app, users can get candid photos, audio books, exclusive videos, his concert schedule, and other types of premium content.


Why am I not seeing THAT when I scan that QR code? Why am I not giving a taste of the premium content available through the app? Or a free chapter of the book I have in my hand that I can read to pique my interest even further? That would make sense. It would be interesting. And it would keep me interacting with Bill Cosby. Directing me to a video that I can’t load (a video that, as it turns out, isn’t interesting anyway) is definitely not going to lead me down a path of conversion.

5. Size & Placement Matter

The quickest way to ruin the QR code experience that you spent so much time crafting is to place that QR code in a situation that just doesn’t work. For example, like placing a QR code on a billboard when your customer is driving and won’t be able to scan it because they are driving. Or placing your code on a post, which is then wrapped around a pole, making it impossible to scan. If someone can’t scan your code, you’ve lost them.

You also want to take size into consideration. QRStuff.com recommends using a simple formula:

Minimum QR Code Size = Scanning Distance /10

Any smaller than that and your users are going to have a difficult time scanning properly.

6. Set Up Tracking

Don’t leave yourself with no way to track what you’re doing. Once you define your purpose, create a URL that you will only publish via your QR code so that it’s easier for you to track and measure later. This will allow you to keep record of how many people scanned it, when they scanned it, what days were post popular, the IP address, etc. All of this information can then be taken and either used to improve your next QR campaign or help you realize you need to reevaluate what you’re doing.

7. Test Your QR Code

Before you send that QR code into the wild, test it to make sure it works the way that you want it to. Is the page you’re sending your customers to mobile-friendly? If they have to take any additional steps once they’re there [enter an email address to redeem a discount, like your Facebook], are they able to accomplish these tasks? This may seem obvious, but as we saw with the Billy Cosby example above, not every brand performs the proper tests.

QR codes give brands the opportunity to hand deliver customers quick nuggets of content that are timely and relevant to them in that moment. But they only do that when used correctly.

Your Comments

  • netmeg

    Your QR codes will scan a lot easier if you use an URL shortener (plus you’ll be able to work in analytics tracking codes if you’ve a mind to – and you should definitely have a mind to)

    • Lisa Barone

      I’m not sure how I didn’t mention that in the ramble of a post. Thanks for including it. :)

    • Mike

      netmeg – if you’re into mobile marketing tracking, check out one of our new beta tools QR Create – instead of having to add tracking codes for each different qr code in analytics, you can just pick one destination URL and serialize multiple QR codes with different information associated with each code.

      It’s a quick & easy way to make a bunch of serialized qr codes to the same landing page (without having to add tracking to analytics for each one) and still keep track of where, when, and which one is scanned.

  • Phil

    It is annoying for us Blackberry folks when we are presented with a video that doesn’t load. I always use SBLI’s mobile version of our YouTube channel (http://m.youtube.com/user/SBLIofMA) to serve the video behind a QR Code.

  • Nate Armstrong

    Did Bill Cosby change his Twitter Profile Pic to a QR Code post this post?

    • Lisa Barone

      That’s hilarious. I only saw his tweets through a feed on his site so I never actually went to his Twitter page. I have no idea how long his profile pic has been a QR code. :)

      • Nate Armstrong

        The irony! I like to think he read this post and then changed it to a QR code in spite of it! haha.

        William, you sly dog.

        • Lisa Barone

          I’m pretty sure that didn’t happen :) BUT what i don’t understand is why make your avatar a QR code anyway? We’re already ON THE WEB. I’m not scanning my computer monitor with my phone. If you want to send me somewhere when we’re both already online, give me a link!

          • Daniel

            Ugh. Don’t even get me started on people putting QR codes on the web.

            I tend to think most people that use QR codes just do it because it’s the cool, new thing. That being said, I think they can be effective when used correctly, and this post certainly offers a step toward proper usage.


  • Brendon Kozlowski

    Another thing to consider is the medium on which the QR Code is being placed. A printed and bound book may last 10-20 years. The chances of a webpage actually being kept up to date for that long when it’s used as a marketing strategy for the initial sale of said book is probably nil. Alternatively, a detachable slip of paper on the book might have been more appropriate (in this situation).

    • Nikolai

      Good observation. Actually, QR Codes themselves should be obsolete long before that. Paper slip would be best.

    • Chris Reimer

      I’m considering using a QR code in a book, similar to Mr. Cosby. Don’t worry, it will take the scanner someplace very relevant. :-)

      As it is true that QR codes may eventually be obsolete, or the website where the codes land may get shut down, my question: what about including a QR code and then the shortened URL as well, right below the code? That way, if QR Codes ever fall by the wayside, at least the reader would be able to type the URL into their browser and visit the online content.

      The same argument (QR codes may become obsolete, websites may get taken down) could be made against providing URLs in books – a printed and bound book will almost certainly outlast the website it links to. Nevertheless, it seems that many books provide URLs to various pertinent sites.

  • netmeg

    Actually, quite a while. Mr. Cosby is hella involved in Social Media and mobile stuff.

  • Todd Mintz

    Clearly, you were supposed to take a picture of the QR Code, send it to your laptop / desktop, and use a service like this (http://blog.qr4.nl/Online-QR-Code_Decoder.aspx) to upload the code to a third party service who would translate it for you.

    After all, if the company is going to give you a good offer, you should have to earn it through hard work :.)

  • Nikolai

    Great article! This is actually the exact thing that my company aims to solve with our unique code generator and scanning app: http://q-counts.com/business-benefits/

    In an attempt at full disclosure, however, I must admit… we don’t have Blackberry support : /

    This is quickly becoming my fav social media blog with the posts I’ve read this last month.

    • Lisa Barone

      Interesting link. So when a user scans the code they automatically follow the brand on all their social networks? Or can the user decide if they want to do that or not? I wasn’t sure based on the video.

      And I’m glad you’re liking the content. That means a lot. :)

      • Nikolai

        As far as social networks go, they can only like a fb page or follow a twitter by scanning, and never both at the same time. we removed multiple-follow functionality, bc it seems a little spammy.

        We just saw a lot of businesses linking their social profiles on qr codes. but usually one of those codes just takes you to a login page…. and logging in isn’t the most fun. with our app, you enter your login once, then never again.

        Then we push our clients to offer motivating reasons to scan their code, let alone join their social networks. We’re making a new video this week that explains the whole process a little better.

        Thanks for taking the time to check our site!

      • Nikolai

        also, you should know that your article last week is the one that finally convinced me to get a pinterest account!

  • Kristina

    great post. Just the other day I got so frustrated because my son was asking what a QR code was and my anti-social media hubby was all “they are just a dumb gimmick” and of course right then It would happen that there was one on the menu we were looking at and when I scanned it to show my son, it didn’t work. It was incompatible with my Android OS. AAARRRRGGGHHH!!!

  • Wasim Ismail

    QR Codes are defiantly becoming more and more visible, you see them on restaurant menus, leaflets though the door, billboards, and in 90% of newspaper adds. Most of us all have some sort of smart phones that can read these QR codes. It’s simple to use…so if a business makes it creative and has an incentive behind it…why wouldn’t it work?

    • Lisa Barone

      I think when they DON’T work is when the business focuses more on the technology and less on the incentive. Because you’re right, it’s so simple that they SHOULD work.

  • janwong

    I agree that QR codes are everywhere today and it has come to a point where it is difficult to find one that actually brings value to the consumer. There are tons of them redirecting consumers to their Facebook pages and non-mobile websites (the horror!). It’s great to see how people can make use of QR codes creatively. It has so much unexplored potential. Great post :)

  • Nikolas Allen

    Thanks for the great tips, Lisa! I’ve been just as excited as any marketer about the idea of QR codes, but I’m holding out on any implementation until I’m able to create a valuable experience surrounding them.

    Some of the usage described above is simply ridiculous. And, I can’t count the number of magazine ads featuring QR codes that say, “Scan the code to go directly to our website!” Um, no thanks.

  • Andrew Stromberg

    Great guidelines and examples Lisa. I really appreciate the creativity of the Red Cross example, but it seems to me that the code kind of gets lost in the design.
    I saw one the other day on one of those separation sticks at the grocery store that you place between your stuff and the guy checking out in front of you so the checker doesn’t accidentally ring up your beer. The code was directed to a heating and cooling website (and it was not a mobile website either). I don’t know, I just didn’t get the relevance.
    But I totally agree that there are tons of ways to integrate QR Codes into creative campaigns and merging channels.

  • Jonas Olofsson

    I just bought a Windows Phone, and was impressed by the QR reading speed, so I started to scan every QR I came across. (Not very many, since i live in Sweden.)
    At this point my experience is that about 50% of the codes does not work as intended.

    One QR sent me to a webpage with only an “error” message on; “This page is intended for mobile devices only”.
    Another QR sent me to YouTube, but the video linked to was private, so I could not view it.

    • Nikolai

      I’m guessing that a lot of that might be attributed to the fact that so many developers are (wrongly) ignoring phones other than iPhone and Droids when they design mobile websites.

      QR Codes are definitely not being utilized very well, though. Not yet…

  • Bob Nunn

    I may start a fire here but you seem like good marketers. The persistent technical difficulties surrounding QR codes make me continue to be the skeptical marketer. I gather some stats on QR codes on my blog in an effort to better understand and discuss. http://bit.ly/QR17st Appreciate any thoughts.