Will QR codes help consumers get cheaper energy?

man scanning qr code

Energy Secretary Ed Davey yesterday announced that in future all energy bills will carry QR codes, which will allow consumers to quickly see where they can get a cheaper deal.

Announcing the move, Davey added that forcing providers to add codes to bills would give people “quick, straightforward way to compare the best deal for them with a simple swipe of their phone”.

And in doing so, he revealed he’s probably never used a QR code. If he did, he’d realise that it isn’t simply a case of swiping one’s phone at all; they’re actually not that simple to use, which is why they’ve failed to take off with the general public, and why this move is unlikely to help many people switch provider.

Here’s how I can look up a QR code on my iPhone:

  • Put in pin code on phone
  • Open up QR app (which, like most people I don’t have on my phone, but let’s assume I did)
  • Scan code, usually more than once
  • Redirected to browser
  • Browser takes me to page

Which is at least two steps longer than just opening up a browser and going to a website using a clean URL. In that time, the user’s attention is lost – moved on to checking Facebook, or texting their mum.

QR codes have a reputation problem. They’ve been around for 18 years, and for about seven as the supposed saviour of conversion marketing, as a mechanism for getting people to click through from physical things to URLs. Problem is, the overwhelming majority of implementations have been woeful. So where people have used one to access content, they’ve been disappointed, and so been put off doing so again. As they experience more and more bad implementations, their patience for trying again has worn thin.

An even greater proportion of people haven’t even got that far. To less digitally-inclined smartphone users, the QR code itself, with its futuristic look, could be offputting – which makes them precisely the wrong mechanism to target a group who have already shown they’re not willing or able to use a comparison website or switch to paperless billing in order to get cheaper prices.

Emotion is important in communication, and an unfamiliar mass of black-and-white pixels can elicit fear and confusion rather than delight and engagement in people who already lack confidence online (and that’s before we even touch on the bigger issue of the 6.7m adults in the UK who have never been online at all – because IT literacy is so intimately bound up with social exclusion and reading literacy)

The most recent research I can find says that just 10.8% of UK smartphone owners have ever used a QR code. Other research shows that while smartphone ownership continues to grow, QR code usage has remained flat, suggesting use is limited to a small group of technophiles.

Technology, rather than user behaviour, is at the heart of the problem here. Neither Apple nor Android phones come with a native QR reader – meaning 94.5% of smartphone users need to download an app in order to use them, creating further barriers to usage. You can’t just wave a phone over it and go. The user has to recognise it’s a QR code, know what to do with it, be convinced to do so, and then take action.

I conducted an informal survey on Twitter, asking how many times people had scanned a QR code in the last month. Here are the results:

qr bar graph

Number of times people have used a QR code in past month.

Column 2 (once in the past month) includes one person who “only did it to prove how rubbish they are”. And bear in mind that regular Twitter users are already more likely to be a regular, confident smartphone user than someone who gets a paper gas bill.

As I’ve blogged about before, QR codes are all too often thought a simple solution for bridging the online-offline marketing divide, with littleconsideration given to the logistical and emotional barriers to successful usage. They do have some uses, and some commentators suggest their use in mobile payments may revive QR.

Efforts to signpost people toward information on better pricing are to be applauded. But I’d suggest QR codes on bills aren’t the answer here, because of the logistical, emotional and confidence barriers that prevent people using them, and because trust in QR codes has been eroded through years of marketing misuse.

tl;dr version: will QR codes help people get cheaper energy? No, I doubt it.

Photo credit: Tramell Hudson (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Edit: Terence Eden has responded to the challenge and come up with the argument for QR codes. His post is well worth reading.

5 thoughts on “Will QR codes help consumers get cheaper energy?

  1. Pingback: Will QR codes help consumers get cheaper energy? – Sharon O’Dea | Public Sector Blogs

  2. Pingback: The Lab powered by O2 » QR Codes on Energy Bills – A Response

  3. Although I can’t argue with the low level of uptake of QR codes and the challenge that some people will not be familiar with them, I am not sure if I totally agree with you Sharon.

    The problem with QR codes is that in their +/- 18 years existence they have generally been misused by marketeers to tempt us to visit largely pointless websites (bizarrely often in tube advertising where there was until recently no internet reception).

    This initiative puts QR codes to a good use: a way to access a specific (and supposedly useful) web page without the need for typing a (presumably longer tail) url – not easy when you are still shaking from your latest utilities bill!

    Not everyone will have QR code scanners (although I think this is a matter of time) and not everyone will feel comfortable using it if they did (again just a matter of time), but it is initiatives like this that will give many of us a good reason to dust the cobwebs of our Scan apps.

    • I’m not convinced it is just a matter of time – iPhone and Android devices have had over half a decade to include QR reading as native functionality and haven’t, because the demand isn’t there. QR codes have failed to broaden their appeal, and I’m not convinced this is a compelling enough proposition to rescue them from their decline.

      We both agree that the misuse of QR codes by marketeers has damaged their reputation, because most of the time they haven’t offered the user anything of any value. But in my view that reputation is now so damaged that it will take an awful lot to save it.

      The website these codes link through to is absolutely critical to success here – and yet this proposal doesn’t outline anything other than the mechanic that is supposed to get them there. How mobile-friendly will it be? Are there clear call to action? Can the user complete the process of switching on the same smartphone?

      Or is this just a gimmick designed to suggest something is being done?

  4. Pingback: QR Codes on Energy Bills – Terence Eden’s Blog

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