Can QR Codes in Catalogs Lower PPC Costs?

Many multichannel merchants experimented with QR codes in their summer catalog mailings to earn a discount from the U.S. Postal Service. But few merchants reported significant results.

So are QR codes, as one merchant told me, merely a “solution looking for a problem?”

That phrase may be closer to the truth than it seems. The secret to making QR codes succeed with consumers lies in providing added value and solving consumer pain. But this requires more than a single “shop now” QR codes pointing at your home page.

QR codes as navigation
QR codes are the ultimate shortcut, and that is what mobile consumers value most. One of the best shortcuts consumers had available until now is search, which, of course, costs marketers money to use.

As a long-time SEO/SEM guy, I’m familiar with the causal relationship of sending a catalog and the resulting increase in “search-as-navigation” queries. The catalog sparks interest. There are fewer keystrokes in typing a search term in a search box than typing a URL. So search engines provide – and profit from – this shortcut.

Search-as-navigation queries make up a big percentage of keyword search volume, particularly after a catalog drop.

But QR codes have the potential of making that information retrieval process seem so last-century for consumers. Why open your browser, type a query, and sort through search engine results page ads, when you can get there directly in one click? Just open your QR codes reader app instead and scan. Consider the benefits:

  • Consumers can get straight to the info in a fraction of the time and steps
  • It’s less frustrating than typing (or speaking) queries on a smartphone
  • It’s less time consuming than navigating the site from their smartphone
  • There is a higher perceived likelihood of getting the right page when compared to searching for it (81% of leading retailer pages indexed in search engines fail to connect mobile users with relevant mobile pages, according to original research conducted earlier this year by Pure Oxygen Mobile).
  • And QR codes scanning apps are freely available for download by the 100 million smartphone owners in the US

The point is this: if search-as-navigation continues to be a shortcut for typing your URL, then QR-as-navigation offers an even more attractive shortcut for reaching the exact URL faster and more efficiently.

This opens up exciting new possibilities for QR codes marketing strategy. Rather than burden consumers with a single home-page QR, why not aim to help users shop the catalog by providing deep QR codes shortcuts throughout? If done right, this strategy may act as an advertising shortcut for marketers, as well.

QR codes as SEM shortcut
If “QR codes as navigation” resonates with consumers, it gives brands an opportunity to reclaim the consumer clickstream in order to reduce ad cost. Your analytics may illuminate the strategy: If your DM induces head-term keyword traffic, consider how “QR codes as navigation” can reduce those acquisition costs.

By placing a functional QR codes in the catalog along-side each highly-searched product category or subcategory, search-inclined consumers could choose whether to take the QR codes shortcut, or take the longer “search” route.

Less expensive tail queries (product names, SKU numbers), could be reclaimed by placing a QR codes next to each product within a catalog that launches product pricing, reviews, etc. Consumers may still decide to search of course, but they’re now given a choice of shortcuts.

Unsure which category or subcategory page to link a print QR codes to? Consider A/B testing. Simply program the printed QR codes to dynamically alternate between a set of category, subcategory, or pre-loaded search result test page URLs, and default all users to the champion once established. You may want to vary the test based on platform (Android, iOS, Blackberry), time of day, geography, or combinations.

The point is that by strategically integrating QR, marketers can begin to offer more compelling deep shortcuts for consumers, which then act as an alternative or a substitute for many “search-as-navigation” queries. In the process, you may be able to reduce SEM spend, improve yield, and lift margins.

Marketing with QR codes may prove disruptive to SEM because it lets brands compete with, and in some cases trump search engines. QR codes aren’t going to replace SEM, but it does bear some resemblance to SEO, providing a method for marketers to connect with search-inclined consumers at reduced cost.

QR codes are still in its infancy in the US, with many execution challenges to be overcome. It’s all too common to see catalog QR codes fail to launch due to improper URL encoding, inappropriate sizing, unnecessary QR codes bloat, or QRs that connect to error pages, inaccessible pages, or lack of mobile optimized content.

However, these issues can be solved through smarter QR code technology. The more important issue for retail brands is QR codes marketing strategy: how to shape QR codes technology to help consumers accomplish their objectives in less time and hassle.

We don’t have to look very hard to see such problems. Mobile consumers know them. And I believe they’ll reward the innovative marketers who learn to see – and solve them.

Brian Klais is president of mobile and social media consultancy Pure Oxygen Labs.