The Art of Scannable QR Codes – A Tale of Abstract Painting, Gay Tours and Weddings Fairs

If you’re looking for a gimmick which divides opinion, look no further than QR Codes.

Critics call the abstract-looking, black and white, scannable codes a complete waste of time, which are largely ignored by the general population.

Fans cite them as a quick, easy and effective way to get information into the hands of smart phone users as and when they want it.

As is so often the case, the reality lies somewhere in between.

Anyone who has eagerly scanned a QR code only to be taken to a non-mobile friendly version of a brand’s standard website is likely to be let down. What’s the point?

Unscannable QR Code on a busy dual carriageway in Edinburgh


Worse, some QR Codes are in the most ridiculous places. Today I spotted this QR code in a totally inaccessible spot – 25ft up on a billboard in the middle of one of the busiest roads in and out of Edinburgh, with no place for drivers to stop.

Simply to take this photograph I had to drive into a bleak industrial estate, hoof it up on to a concrete flyover – and even with camera on maximum zoom could still barely make out the QR Code, let alone actually scan it.

Maybe this could even earn a place in the QR Code Hall of shame – this funny website dedicated to the worst fails involving impossible to scan or utterly pointless examples.

Until recently there’s also been the problem of finding a scanning app and downloading it to your smart phone. Then remembering where it is, opening it and using it, all of which can be problematic if you are in a busy shop or on a cold street wearing gloves.

Increasingly, though, smart phones are shipping with scanning software built in. Indeed, the excellent Nokia 800 Windows phoneI use has a one-touch code scanner which works like lightning. It will happily open the destination URL there and then or just as happily save it for viewing later. Which means I’m regularly scanning codes when I see them – on parked vehicles, magazines, bus shelters etc.

Nokia Lumia 800 Windows Phone

Built in QR Scanner

Once you have the habit of scanning QR codes the true utility becomes apparent. It can be really handy to scan a code and get information you really need or want – like the details of a property for sale or rent when you scan the QR code on a sales board.

Recently spotted a vehicle branded with bodywork for Black Kilt Tours, including a QR code. Since I’ve developed a yen for travelling the Scottish highlands and islands, I scanned it, only to learn it is a service specialising in just such tours – but for gay men.

So while it wasn’t for me, the QR codes still proved useful, sparing me any unnecessary online research, awkward phone calls or the possibility of rather uncomfortable coach trip. Moreover, it stuck in my memory. Brand awareness.

QR Code Art by Trevor Jones

QR Code Artwork

Today I’ve come across what struck me as an excellent use of QR codes, this time in an email newsletter from Edinburgh-based painter, Trevor Jones.  Since he’s a talented, professional artist, his abstract rendition of a QR code is arguably more eye catching than the standard mono square. But it goes further than that.

(* Disclaimer: I don’t know Trevor  Jones, work for him, or in other way represent the artist.)

When I tested whether his artwork was scannable, I was immediately taken to a mobile-optimised landing page, notifying me that to win a unique work of art by Trevor Jones, all I had to do was Like the Trevor Jones Art Facebook page, sign up for his newsletter – or to double the chance of winning, do both.

I duly did both. It was a frictionless process – and an object lesson for anyone else in business looking to build Facebook likes, or even more importantly, to gather qualified email leads.

Mobile optimised QR Code landing page

Mobile optimised

It didn’t stop there though. Jones has deviated from his usual colourful abstracts and there was also an intriguing come on in the original newsletter:

“I’ve just found out my QR code paintings will be on display at the Edinburgh Art Fair 16 – 18 November. I’ll be there over the three days to demonstrate how the paintings work and to answer any questions you may have about them such as, ‘Seriously. Why are you painting QR codes, Trevor? I kinda liked your older work better’.

“Ya, it’s true. I’m getting that but if you stop by the Art Fair I’ll gladly explain what all the fuss is about.  Promise.”

Now, truth be told, I’m a bit of an art pleb. Yet, depending on my diary, I might even look in on that art fair – and if I do, Mr Jones and his QR code will have been directly responsible for influencing my behaviour.

If that’s not enough for you, there’s also a mini site, called Mark of Beauty, dedicated to the artist’s representations of QR codes which he has been painting through 2012.

There he says:

When I began developing this new body of work exploring QR codes as art I realised there would be some who wouldn’t “get it” or who would even question its validity as painting…

“…The general consensus was that this artwork would indeed very likely divide opinions and, as an artist, what more could I ask for? Good art should stimulate debate and I really hope that these paintings encourage this. “

So it’s not only QR codes which divide opinion, but even works of art based on QR codes.

My advice? Don’t write off these little black and white squares as a useless gimmick.  A well-executed example which is of use to the target audience and delivers value, can greatly help them on their customer journey.

Such a campaign  can also make your brand or business memorable (the names Black Kilt Tours and Trevor Jones art are now firmly on my radar).

Yet there’s even more. Maybe you could use a QR code in an imaginitive way to help collect email addresses or to help spread your monthly newsletter? Somewhere along the line you might just help influence the behaviour of possible clients too.

This may not have painted a picture quite as eye catching as those by Trevor Jones. So here are a few more links to really clever and creative use of QR codes:



If Something Seems to Good to Be True, It’s Probably Not True. So What About Groupon?

Groupon: Runaway Success

Just a few short months ago the online discount service Groupon famously turned down an offer from Google.

The news raised more than a few eyebrows because of the amount of money the search giant offered to acquire the online group coupon service – a mind-boggling  $6 billion. Yes, that’s billion. With a B.

If you don’t already know what Groupon is, it works like this:

1 – A business offers a deal for its products or services with at least 50% off (thought discounts can be up to 90%).

2 – Groupon sends the offer round its database of users and they are asked to share it widely on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

3 – The business sets the number of customers needed to make the deal worthwhile for it – and the offer is only valid when that number is reached.

4 – Bargain hunters flock to your store/restaurant/business in an intensive, short period to redeem their vouchers.

The service so far is an astonishingly successful, runaway success story.

Baby faced boss man Andrew Stone decided not to check out with a hefty chunk of Google change in his hipper. Which suggests  he is super confident the service has a long-term future.

Perhaps unsurprising, since Groupon had revenues of $760 million in 2010; it’s headed for $4 billion in revenues this year; and has 70 million global subscribers.

The latest news on Groupon is that it is going to float on the US stockmarket – what is referred to in the states as an Initial Public Offering (IPO).

Bloomberg has reported Groupon is speaking to bankers about an IPO valuation of $25 billion (yes, the B-word again). That’s higher than the $23 billion Google achieved when it  went through an IPO and became a publicly traded company, subject to market regulation.

On a recent episode of This Week In Tech podcast, online luminary Jeff Jarvis asked a live crowd of tech lovers at The South by South West event: “How many of you use Groupon?”

His question was met with silence and Jarvis added: “Then why is it so big? I don’t get it.”

I share his bafflement. I struggle to understand how businesses can sell product at a fraction of the usual price and from what little money they take, then have to pay Groupon.

I also have doubts about how many of those bargain-hunters will convert to long-term customers.

When news of the Groupon IPO broke I put a question out on LinkedIn asking if other people shared my suspicion that it was grossly over-valued and likely to pop. Turns out quite a few long term web watchers and smart people whose opinion I value are equally bemused by Groupon’s success.

Maybe we have a shared cyncisim? Certainly I’ve always adhered to the view that if something appears too good to be true, then it almost certainly isn’t true.

I can’t shake that feeling about Groupon – but then, I’ve never used it, either as a business or a customer.

So I’d love to hear from companies or businesses which have used the service repeatedly and found it a great way to  build a new, engaged and loyal customer base.

Likewise I’d be keen to hear from any business owner or operator who has used Groupon – and definitely won’t be hurrying back to use it again.

If you have any thoughts or experiences to share, the comment section below awaits you!

Vitaly Borker: A passionate, ‘purple cow’, social media success story?

The Sopranos

Morally complex

The roles of public relations, customer service and social media are increasingly merging.

So the case of Vitaly Borker is a fascinating one.

He is the online retailer who devotes up to 20 hours a day clashing with people he perceives as problem customers – those who complain, refuse to pay or quibble over the quality of goods and services.

His alleged repertoire against certain customers of his online eyeglasses and sunglasses business includes:

  • Abusive language
  • Veiled threats of violence
  • Sexual threats
  • Stalking behaviour (including sending victims photos of their homes)
  • Posing as customers to cancel transactions with financial institutions

Even his name – Vitaly Borker – carries the vague whiff of Russian mafia menace. He has also adopted two alter egos: Stanley Bolds and Tony Russo, character names that could’ve walked straight off the pages of a Sopranos script.

Why exactly Borker go to such enormous efforts to provoke and tyrannise people who spend money with his firm?

Quite simply because it is good for his Google rankings.

Whether  fed-up, frightened or plain furious, those who feel slighted, cheated or ripped off follow a now well-worn path online, to complain loudly about their experiences. That in turn means his business, DecorMyEyes ranks well in search engines.

Read the full expose of his antics at the New York Times. It is by degrees hilarious, jaw-dropping and deflating.

Borker’s case is disturbing. Like any such tale, it is easy to think of it as black and white. Just like the aforementioned Sopranos, the moral complexities it throws up are what really make us cringe. Here are a few other uncomfortable thoughts which so far have received little discussion: Continue reading

Why PR Works: Number 2

In answer to those who “don’t believe” in PR, I created an occasional series to remind myselt that I do get out of bed for a purpose:

An earlier post concerned a wee bit of crisis management we did for Fife-based FFDR when it was reported they were subject of a £10m takover bid, leaving staff unsettle and fearing for their jobs. For the six hours work we put in at short notice, we achieve the following:

  • Three daily newspaper articles – in all target titles.
  • One article in a national, weekly business publication.
  • One sizable article in the most relevant weekly newspaper.
  • Major coverage on the first two pages thrown up by Google by searching the company name.
  • A basic AVE of £4000 (no multiplying the figure either!)
  • All three, pre-agreed key messages delivered across the coverage.

That’s cheered me right up. But I’m not half as pleased as the client is.