QR codes for nonprofit PR are a terrible idea

Jonathan Eyler-Werve

January 04, 2012

Every year or so, there is a new strain of chattering hype that trickles through the nonprofit tech echo chamber. This is fueled by a special class of nonprofit social media consultants and trainers who, despite their apparent awesomeness as keynote speakers, never seem to have enough work. Thus, a lot of blogs to fill, which leads to inane advice that to me seems a long way away from actual problems that organizations face.

When you sell the hammer, everything looks like a nail, and when you sell emerging technology, everyone needs a Facebook page. Pro tip: You might not. It depends on your strategy.

The impression that “new” (as opposed to “relevant”) is inherently good is a lie, and one that has the effect of disempowering the nonprofit community. I see real anxiety  in managers about not being on trend, despite the fact that these trends are usually stupid and unrelated to real work of building social movements.

The latest buzz bubble is QR Codes, or as I call them, hyperlinks for rich people. I’ll explain the basics:

A QR code is just a damned link. 

I know, it seems more complicated than that. It’s in a phone, after all. I can hear you say: Mobile is being adopted by… NO. STOP. It’s a link. It’s a link to a resource, probably a Web page. The fact that it’s only readable on some phones instead of any other device is not cutting edge. It’s actually a very bad thing. A plaintext URL (eylerwerve.com/2012/QR) is accessible by lots of devices, including smartphones. A QR code is accessible only by a smartphone. But it’s just a link. Thus…

A QR code is a link that only people who own smartphones can use.

QR codes can do a few other things than launch a webpage: dial a phone number, send an SMS, read out as a snippet of text, a few others. But all of those things take control away from the end user compared to, say just thumbing in the number, the URL or reading your 30 characters of text. This is not good practice. This is advertising sketchiness. If that’s your brand, then let’s put it all over your posters, sure.

QR codes can be attack vectors for malware. See, some QR readers will run all kinds of weird stuff, most worryingly javascript. As adoption picks up, people will start to half-remember CNN stories about the badness that can come from an unknown QR code. Confusion will amplify these stories. So..

QR codes are sketchy links restricted to rich people. 

Everything you can do with a QR reader, can be done with your thumb, faster. Look at these instructions on a blog post on QR codes:

To scan a QR Code, smartphone owners download a QR Code Reader [browse your App Store/Gallery for a “qr code reader”] and then take a picture of the QR Code. The person scanning is then sent either to a mobile Web browser to view the link inside the QR Code, sent a text message, or prompted to dial a phone number. QR Codes are ideal for location-based communications and fundraising campaigns. Try it! Scan the QR Code featured in this blog post to see how it works. [1]

Or you could punch in a ten character URL. Reading: it doesn’t require software! Right away, you are cutting out everyone who doesn’t understand the text above. Or you have to include the text above and send your user off to download someone else’s app to do what? Visit your webpage? OMG fail.

Victor Vasarely’s ‘Riu-Kiu’ (1960)

QR codes are for the people who are wealthy enough to use smartphones and are informed enough to have a QR reader, but not so informed that they think that QR codes are sketchy or stupid.  

If that’s your strategy — use tech that confuses and could threaten users; talk only to people who can afford to get your message; make simple things harder — then good luck to you. If you’re a consultant pushing this on people, I question your values design philosophy. [clarified below] But the thing is, that isn’t happening much — despite the fact that all the software and hardware needed to spread these things have existed for years, adoption is not widespread. I’ve yet to come across any QR Code success story that could ‘t have been accomplished with a printed shortlink. If you have counter examples, please hit the comments section below.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red, 1937–42, oil on canvas, 72.5 x 69 cm, Tate Gallery. London (Wikipedia)

So why do these things exist? Here’s where it makes some sense:

  • You need to put text on something too small to use letters. Like the back of a microchip, which is why the MicroQR format was created.
  • You are scanning URLs in repetition, like someone taking stockroom inventory, checking in ticketholders, or (as the Obama campaign did) marking phone banking printouts as completed. The key difference is that one person is scanning many codes, not putting one code in front of many people.
  • You are mainly talking to robots. Moving boxes around on conveyor belts? Codes ahoy.
  • You want to be opaque and use a hidden message. See the QR hobo codes, which are readable by homeless people… with iPhones.
  • You want to secretly embed tracking metrics into your campaigns. Sure it looks like your campaign website, but you actually went to a different site, then redirected, so you can track conversion rates. Not crazy, but a little sketchy.

Why do QR codes get so much hype outside of the narrow constraints listed above? My theory: op art. It’s awesome. I love it. QR codes just look cool. Piet Mondrian would have loved these little things popping up all over the place. So if your organization’s mission is a Dada approach to 1920s art appreciation, then yes, QR codes are right for you.

— Jonathan Eyler-Werve


[1] https://nonprofitorgs.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/22-ways-nonprofits-can-use-qr-codes-for-fundraising-and-awareness-campaigns/

  • My faithful editor Kate points out that the phrase “question your values” comes across pretty hard. I can clarify: I have doubts about a design philosophy that emphasizes complex solutions where simple ones can also work, particularly for nonprofit clients. I’m not trying to say that the people in our field aren’t well intended or making the best recommendations they can.