The QR Code Hype Cycle

The Gartner Hype Cycle is a general graphical representation of the maturity and adoption of a technology. I have reproduced a version for QR Codes showing the relative positions of the West and Japan in the cycle.

QR Code Hype CycleYou will see that QR Codes in the USA and Europe are in the ‘frenzy of publicity’ phase which is typified by over enthusiasm and unrealistic expectations. We know that they are at this stage because technology news sites like Mashable and ClickZ are publishing nonsensical QR Code statistics and crap advice on an almost daily basis. At the same time self appointed Marketing experts are falling over themselves to offer advice and instruction even though they have yet to design or manage a QR Code campaign.

It’s different in Japan, QR Codes are everywhere and if you have not visited in the last few years it is easy to imagine that scanning these codes is a major preoccupation for the average Japanese. This is not the case. Stand near a typical and prominently displayed QR Code in a busy area of Tokyo and watch what happens. Not very much is the answer, very few people will look at the code and you will be lucky to see someone stop and scan it. This is because in Japan QR Codes have lost their novelty value and they have simply blended into the background, just like other common symbols such as traffic signs. They are simply part of every day life and there has to be a very good reason to stop what you are doing and scan one. Japan has passed the peak of the hype cycle and is now in the ‘disillusionment phase’.

It is reasonable to assume that QR Codes in the West will follow a similar hype cycle path as they have in Japan. In which case it is worth looking at some statistics (not the made up variety!).

QR Codes are a keyA June 2009 study from NetAsia Research showed that 76% of the Japanese have or to be more precise “know they have”, the ability to access QR Codes. Obviously some use the facility more or less than others but the average across this group is 1.24 times per week. Not very often is it? The main reasons given for scanning the codes is also illuminating. There are really only three, 31.6% to use a coupon, 30.9% to apply for a special promotion and 22.7% to have more information on a product.

So this is the future of QR Codes in the West. They may generate curiosity or local publicity at the moment but QR Codes on real estate signs, business cards, product packaging etc., are not going to increase sales just because they are present. QR Codes that provide deep discounts, free samples, exclusive content etc., may increase sales but the number of scans and conversions will depend on the value of the offering.

Bottom line – design your QR Code campaign carefully, provide as big a reward to the consumer as possible and even then be prepared to be underwhelmed by the response.

19 thoughts on “The QR Code Hype Cycle”

  1. I remember this chart from my IT classes.

    I personally believe that this is additionally fragmented due to its not a level playing field to begin with and their are several curves overlapping each other. Smartphone adaption has not stabilized, and code formats are taking off and threats of the next wave of image recognition are in the near future horizon thus making people question current adoption.

    I think the novelty factor is something that I continuously fight and embrace. I do not think what I call “curiosity” marketing is good for a brand in the long run, but it does push mobile tagging curiosities as a whole. That next more stable growth will hopefully consist of better UX and a focus on the mobile interactions rather then the codes themselves. Its an interesting time to watch codes.


  2. I’d be interested to know what the primary drivers of disillusionment are. Poor execution of campaigns would be my choice based on the amateurish work I’ve seen in Thailand.

  3. This reminds me of Video calls on mobile phones. It was once viewed as a nice thing to have. People did appreciate the technology when it first emerged. They thought it was wonderful to have on the phone, but now nobody hardly uses them!
    The same fate awaits QR Codes and other 2D barcodes. They will simply blend to the background, just as the author has stated.

  4. I think people in US already know about barcodes, we are surrounded by UPC bar codes. QR is just yet another symbology that will help to expand the value of codes.

    People are more likely to scan codes when they are presented with an offer (Scan this proof-of-purchase and redeem the coupon). Also, people need to be told what to do when they see a code (at least until there’s a pre-loaded app in everyones device).

    While QR’s novelty will diminish and fall into the ‘disillusionment phase’, code scanning has and will continue to be a part of all our lives. It’s incumbent on the publisher to create the value associated with a scan. Coupons, deals, contests, and mobile web UX will be the driving factors once stability is achieved.

    Right now, I’m buying into the hype, and am willing to scan just about any code I see… 🙂

  5. The way I look at it, if it’s useful to have something network-accessible, then giving it a URL and pointing a browser to it makes it simpler to access. That’s what the 90’s gave us. Labeling it with a QR code is yet another clever (and inexpensive) way to simplify and broaden that access for browser-enabled mobile phones with cameras. It’s an evolution, not a revolution.

  6. I’d be interested in knowing how many years the frenzy and publicity lasted in Japan and if the u.s is on the same timeline .. mind you with smartphones growth seeing expontial growth we will continue to see expontial growth with barcodes has well, and with proper execution, could be a keeper with brands

  7. Roger, I appreciate the unique angle regarding Japan in your post… and I think the real beef is in the top 3 reasons research you pulled:

    “31.6% to use a coupon, 30.9% to apply for a special promotion and 22.7% to have more information on a product.

    As a marketer who sees real potential in this space, I’m remaining cautiously optimistic. At the same time, I’m also prepared to be underwhelmed.

    Thanks also for helping me correct my link in a recent tweet regarding a one-question survey I’m conducting about QR Codes. In case you and your readers might choose to participate, the question is now posted at:

  8. I wrote about this recently and believe that QR codes will pass rather quickly in terms of something that users really want to interact with. In some contexts, like as a hyperlink in a paper book, is a great idea. But as a marketing tool – I just don’t believe consumers are looking to get more messaging from advertisers. Do you know anyone who reads magazines for ads, or listens to radio for ads or watches televisions for ads (except the Super Bowl)? Why would anyone want to scan a marketers QR code for more advertising? Because of novelty, that’s why. Scanning things with a telephone, are you kidding me?

    There is one alternative where scanning for more info is absolutely relevant however, and that’s with Sticky Bits. I’m not paid by Sticky Bits and gain nothing by talking them up. Hell, there may even be a better option out there, I don’t know. What I do know is that if I want more information about a product, any product, I can scan its barcode through Sticky BIts and see what *consumers* are saying about the product. Not marketing messages designed to get me to buy, but real consumer sentiment about a product. Here’s my recent story about QR codes vs. Sticky Bits:

  9. Companies that track ROI per consumer properly can easily determine whether it’s useful to use codes to get more people engaging (contests, discounts, etc.) or whether they can deliver a more nuanced campaign that gets consumers via codes that provide a higher ROI compared to the average consumer.

    Code engagement in general media (magazines, newspapers, etc.) tracks to similar numbers as direct response media and web banner ads so actual engagement numbers can be quite low. Unlike web banner ads a marketer can’t buy their way to large engagement numbers, but the actual ROI per consumer can be substantially higher than average because the act of engagement represents a higher interest level (consumer takes out phone, opens scanner app, scans, waits for content).

  10. While I believe that consumers may not want to be inundated with messages from advertisers on bus stop billboards and all I think on a local level it is much different ballgame. If you work with pizza shops, bar and grilles, auto repair facilities, carpet cleaners, local fitness centers who already advertise via weekly flyers, etc a QR code on that ad that offers something the biz owner does not normally offer can be huge for the people who are already cutting out the coupons for that business.
    In addition take beverage store owners; put a big QR sign in their storefront window and offer a weekly/bi-weekly special for scanning the QR code. Plus once you scan the code you can save it on your smart phone. Then once a week you can check that store’s QR specials….and that is just scratching the surface from a local standpoint and how QR codes can help those biz owners. And dont get me started on local real estate folks.

  11. I would humbly submit that there’s a way out of the disillusionment trap.

    What is needed is a standard in the visual presentation that will inform the user of the type of content he’s going to receive: coupon, product info, tie-in promotion or contest, etc.

    How to implement this is a matter for debate. My recommendation would be a simple color coding scheme for the corner anchors, perhaps with a simple set of icons to be used in the center where many are now placing logos.

    Dollar Green – for a coupon or discount
    Exciting Red – for a promotional contest
    Hyperlink blue – for other web content
    Basic Black – for all other content

  12. Thanks again for a thought provoking article, Roger!

    As the company “doing” Japan, at least where it concerns QR codes, our experience is that we are deep in the “Stable and Evolving” stage.

    One important parameter of the Hype Cycle is how long does it take for a topic (in our case, QR codes) to move along the graph (check those coloured circles and triangles on Gartner’s Hype Cycle graphs). I’d like to hear your thoughts about this. I would say it took Japan some 2-3 years to move past the “Enlightenment” slope to ubiquitous adoption that we see today.

    Another point worth considering is the close relationship between adoption of QR codes and that of the Mobile Web. Would you say that Mobile Web is in the “Frenzy” or perhaps in the “Stable and Evolving” stage?

  13. @Mendy I think that the Western experience will follow the curve but at a much faster pace than it did in Japan. On reflection I think you are right that Japan is probably in the “Stable and Evolving” stage.

    It is predicted that Mobile phones will overtake PCs as the dominant web access device worldwide by 2013. I think that may coincide with the peak of the cycle for Mobile Web.

  14. I am in the United States.

    I am in the disillusionment stage already.

    QR everywhere. Little or no value offered anywhere.

    I scan 80% less now than a year ago, when I looked forward to discovering QR codes.

  15. All new vehicles go through an early adopter stage which is full of hope. I have no doubt that the QR code will settle down if provider simply have desirable content clearly signalled. We at the marketing sages have carried out twp QR campaigns with very different results.

    The simple information URL did effectively nothing where as the retailer who made an exceptional discounts for ‘out of hours’ purchase produced a reasonable ROI.

    Considering the still growing awareness of codes this was a real result and taught us a simple truism.

  16. The issue, with most things appears to be the actual implementation of these ‘fads.’ With anything (in the US) there will be a mystical period of fascination, followed by a mass overflowing of the bandwagon, and eventually less thought about it.

    More often than not, companies and individuals simply see something and join in, neglecting to truly access the potential that could be there- Things trickle down from one industry to another, to the extent that everyone and (and their dog) will have a QR code.

    Looking to Asia, and Japan specifically as an example is a bit futile, given the advanced nature of the technological culture over there.
    Americans will always be months, if not years behind, so don’t be alarmed if QR codes linger much longer than many of you would like to see them.
    Don’t forget there are people on this side of the Pacific that still have not upgraded to a smartphone (or know how to properly use one, for that matter)..

    Simply wishing they’d disappear, instead of finding creative ways to work with them doesn’t really help anything. Try exhausting all possibilities before giving up.
    Your neighborhood Pizzerias will have their own QR codes in about 5 years time. Why? Because everyone else does. You’ll be “over it” when the rest of the people around you are just catching on. Wait for it..

  17. I agree that in some instances QR codes are overused and probably worthless. However, I believe that the increase online shopping and the recent statistics posted by google, QR codes will quickly find their place.

    I am currently using QR codes for real estate marketing. I can place the code on my signs, flyers and ads in the home buyer’s magazines that give more information than I can place in print. For example, Listing X in a home buyer’s mag will show one image and a short description. If I place the QR code in the listing, the potential buyer will be able to go directly to that listings mini-site and see a slideshow with more images and more in-depth descriptions of the property. Additionally there will be a link to a google map of the property and a “Tap to Talk” button to schedule a showing. I think that this type of application will be where QR codes find their stride.

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