Ads with QR Codes are popping up everywhere. Some use QR Codes to their maximum potential while others completely ignore basic QR Codes best practices. When I begin to pay attention to how many QR Codes are displayed in NY Subway trains and stations, an adapted version of “War” by Edwin Starr starts to play in my head. “Q.. R.. what is it good for? Absolutely nothin’!”

Q.. R.. what is it good for? Absolutely nothin’!

A recently published article looking into QR Codes best practices introduced 10 rules marketers should consider. By following these practices, we can see what marketers should have done better and learn from their example.

Do not use a QR Code in places without wireless reception if internet connectivity is required to access the encoded content.

Before we check on the use of QR Codes in specific ad campaigns, let’s establish a basic principle. If your QR Code leads the user to a URL or other service that requires connectivity, they shouldn’t be placed in an area without wireless reception. At the end of the day, if you’ve include a QR Code in an advertising and the customer can’t access your content, you’ve wasted space and provided an awful customer experience. Perhaps those NY Subway posters are used in other places as well, but the signage inside the wagons doesn’t need QR Codes.

The School of Visual Arts failed the QR Codes best practices test

This engaging poster from The School of Visual Arts ( was located in many subway stations. You can see a zoomed-in image in the lower left-hand corner.

School of Visual Arts poster - QR Codes Best Practices in NY Subway

School of Visual Arts poster – QR Codes Best Practices in NY Subway – March 2013

What can we learn from this QR Code?

  1. It was located in places without wireless reception, therefore when you scanned this QR Code you received a “webpage not available” notice.
  2. Even if you took note of the link to try later, you would discover the worst QR Code sin: a NON-MOBILE webpage. It was impossible to read any of the content.
  3. There was no call to action i.e. once you arrived on your mobile phone to the SVA home page, what should you do?
  4. The sign lacked hints on what would happen after scanning. While this is not necessary in every circumstance, a “scan to visit our page” note could have been a nice addition.

What should have been different:

Assuming the sign was placed in other areas with wireless access, we can look at what else should have been different according to the our QR Codes best practices:School of Visual Arts poster - QR Codes Best Practices in NY Subway - No Mobile landing page

  1. They needed a mobile optimized specific landing page.
  2. They should have provided a specific call to action on that landing page.
  3. The customer should have been informed on what they would find after scanning the code. If most of the signs were destined for subway stations, the QR Code shouldn’t have been there!

School of Visual Arts - SVA QR Codes best Practices Scorecard

QR Codes on trains: the good, the bad and the ugly

We can look at another experience with an MTA ad to further explore what many advertisers are unaware of. The picture below shows an MTA ad promoting an app that provides information about artwork installed throughout the subways in New York.
Many attempts were made to scan the QR Code. When the train was in motion, it was impossible to focus the phone on the QR Code. When the train stopped, the doors opened and passengers started entering and leaving the train. This made it impossible to stand there and scan it. Even without the people moving in and out, the QR Code was too small to scan from a distance. You had to raise your hand within inches of the ad to grab it.

QR Codes best practices in NY Subways - March 2013The Landing page QR Codes best practices in NY Subways

If we forget about the problems with the ad, we can give the designer some credit for informing people what the QR Code was for. They also provided an alternative way to get that content, created a QR Code that had a clear call to action (download the app), and used a short URL ( that made the QR Code simpler and provided some analytics.
Still, none of this credit matters after the realization that the link they provided led to a non-mobile page! The QR Code is about to be scanned with a mobile device. The call to action is to install a mobile app. Thus the landing page MUST be mobile optimized.

Considerations for improvement:

Let’s assume the customer is tech savvy and doesn’t care to store the link for later use. The advertiser could have achieved better results if they had followed these QR Codes best practices:

  1. Always have a mobile optimized specific landing page.QR Codes best practices - QR Code leading to Android-market page
  2. Instead of making a landing page with links to different app stores, create two different QR Codes and differentiate between apple and droid. Also make sure they land directly on the app page of the right app store. If we scan the android identified QR Code, the landing page should be on the Play Store (see the examples below). This will be more complicated if you support more platforms i.e. windows and blackberry.
  3. Create a QR Code that is easy to scan from a certain distance.
  4. If the size of the QR Code requires positioning the phone close to it, place the QR Code no higher than average eye level.

MTA QR Codes Best Practices - ScoreCard

The two most important takeaways from QR Codes on NY Subways

These are the two rules to keep in mind:

  1.  If most of your ads will be displayed in areas without wireless reception consider avoiding QR Codes.
  2. In any case, with or without wireless reception, your landing page MUST BE mobile optimized.

The B- side of Edwin Starr’s “War” single has a nice song called “He Who Picked a Rose”. An adapted version of the lyrics makes a very fitting end to this article

“So remember, he who picks a rose
Must accept the thorns it bears, yeah, yeah
I’m talking about the good and the bad in a… QR Code