Head-to-Head: SMS vs QR Codes

boxing gloves depicting a comparison of text messaging and QR codes

We hear it a lot – “Wouldn’t it be better to use a QR code rather than a text message call-to-action?  QR codes are so cool!”

It’s easy to get sucked into the “whiz-bang” factor of QR codes, but before you start printing them everywhere, let’s put SMS and QR codes head-to-head for 5 rounds.  Ding ding ding!

Audience Size

SMS marketing targets the largest audience of mobile phones users – those who know how to send a text message.  Nearly every phone in the US is text message capable, and more than 72% of adults actively use SMS.  When a mobile marketing campaign uses SMS as the call-to-action it’s making that campaign available to the largest audience possible.

According to a comScore study, only 6% of the total mobile audience in the US scanned a QR code during a given month.  This means in a group of 100 people you may be left with under 10 people who know how to use QR codes. This is far less than the 80-90 who will know how to text message.  Obviously, starting with an audience that small will make it difficult to generate great numbers from a campaign.

SMS: 1 | QR: 0

Direct Marketing Database

Usually the goal of an SMS marketing campaign is to not only to create an interaction when the user has only their phone, but also to build an opt-in database for future messages.  Being able to instantly reach your audience through a text message on their phone is extremely valuable.

With QR codes you’re creating a scan-able shortcut to some piece of content —  website, video, download, etc.  Unless the QR code creates a text message (and they can do that) you will be unable to store any information and further communicate with that user.  If you have any desire to communicate with this audience in the future this is a huge downside of QR codes.

SMS: 2 | QR: 0

Ease of Use

qr code on a pepsi productText messaging is something nearly everyone understands now.  You click the app or menu item on your phone, enter the address and message, and click send.  The campaign response comes back in seconds giving you a web link, promotion code, or confirmation message (any content that can be delivered through a QR code).

If you’ve never tried to scan a QR code it’s worth doing just so you can understand what’s involved.  First let’s assume you haven’t done this before.  You’ll need to go to your smartphone’s app store, search for a QR code reader app, download, and install.  Then you’ll need to launch the app and try to fit the QR code into the designated space on your phone’s screen using your camera.  If you get too close to the code the camera will lose focus and you’ll need to move back.  Hold still now because it needs a good 2 seconds to finish the scan.  After scanning the app will ask you if you want to complete the action embedded in the code.  For example – “Do you want to follow this link in your browser?”  You click “Yes” and you’re finally on your way to the content…if you’ve stuck with it this long.

SMS: 3 | QR: 0

Viral Potential

With a great SMS campaign, there’s always the very good likelihood people will pass around the keyword and shortcode telling their friends to “text SOMETHING to 12345.” This can be done via SMS, Facebook, email, and even the good ol’ fashioned phone, dramatically increasing the results and reaching new audiences.

A QR code can not be easily passed to another person.  Sure, you may be able to take a picture of it and email it to someone so they can scan from their computer’s screen (assuming the picture is clear enough), but who’s going to go through all that trouble?  It just doesn’t happen.

SMS: 4 | QR: 0

“Whiz-Bang” Factor

Text messaging has been popular for years now.  It’s become the “email” of our phones.  Everyone sends it and everyone gets it.

QR codes are new, interesting, geeky, and high-tech.  The first time you see one work it seems like magic.  It’s easy to forget the factors above and let that emotion drive you to launching your next campaign with QR codes.  “Anything this cool will really take-off!”  If your audience is super-geeky (maybe you’re selling USB-powered Stars Wars figurines at a computer fair?) the high-tech nature of QR codes could work to your advantage.  However, an overwhelming majority of businesses and organizations will always get better results from SMS marketing.  Also, like we mentioned above, QR codes can always be setup to quickly create a text message when scanned, giving you the best of both worlds when the “whiz-bang” factor is useful.

SMS: 4 | QR: 1

After 5 rounds the judges’ decision is unanimous.  SMS is crowned champion of the mobile marketing call-to-action.

Keep in mind there are a few situations where QR codes simply won’t work. Radio is an obvious one, but also television.  It’s impractical to try and leave a QR code up on screen long enough for someone to get out there phone and try to scan it.  Another instance where QR codes won’t work is a sign in high-traffic areas.  Advertising is commonly placed where the most people are driving by, but that is usually the worst place to stop and scan something with your phone.  However, all of these scenarios have been used in the past to successfully promote SMS marketing campaigns.

What do you think?  Drop in a comment below and let us know.

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1) Viral potential

A QR code can absolutely be passed to someone else. When you scan a QR with your phone, and it decodes the data - then that can be forwarded elsewhere. A user would not actually forward the image. The author is setting up a straw dummy case. The encoded QR data can be as viral as any other data.

2) Ease of use

Regarding the setup for installing a QR decoder - The steps you described are accurate. But the installation only occurs once. After this, using a QR decoder is a 1 click process. (Or maybe 2 clicks, depending on the decoding app that you install on your phone.) While when typing an SMS number, each digit in that number is a click. Every click is a potential source of error.  A QR is fundamentally more robust from a UX viewpoint.

The QR is also extremely well suited for a user pedestrian to control a digital sign. I have 2 patents + 7 patents pending on this idea. The base patent is - 'Cellphone changing an electronic display that contains a barcode'

The first use case is to let a pedestrian in front of a shop control a screen in the window. Using off the shelf [COTS] hardware for both the phone and the large screen. She can search the shop's entire inventory and see the results in the shop window screen. Far more immersive than seeing results on her phone. This also gets around the centuries old limitation of any shop window. Too small to show all the inventory for sale. 

A 2nd use case is electronic billboards. Two users can scan a barcode on the billboard and then play a game on the billboard. Using their phones to control their pieces. In front of the entire plaza.

What I am trying to say is that QRs are capable of far more than just being passive hardcopy images. When you put a barcode on a screen, much else unfolds.


You have missed to point out the cost factor between a QR code (free) and a text response (not free).

Jared Boehm
Jared Boehm

In reply to your points: Audience size:  72% use SMS -- sure -- but what percentage use SMS to enquire about a product or services?  I am very loathe to do so, even though I text every day. Direct Marketing Database:  This is exactly why I am more willing to scan a QR code than to send a text regarding a product or service.  I do not want to be harassed by text. Ease of Use:  I've been impressed with how quickly and accurately my QR code scanner will pick up and interpret the code.  Methinks you doth protest too much. Viral Potential:  I have never, ever, had a friend, coworker, or stranger come to me and pass on something in the way you describe.  It just doesn't happen.  I suspect because with a text message, you are really limited on what sort of 'cool' stuff you can deliver, at least cool enough to make me want to share that information with my friends. I, and I'm sure others, look at our text messaging as one of the last few areas where we are not inundated with marketing, and take steps to keep it that way.  I would be curious to see how long the average subscriber stays subscribed to your marketing campagins.


Interesting comparison JA.  From the website clues I take it you are based in the USA.  Have you any comparable data for the UK?  Does your company provide services over here?