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The QR code experiment at the Harvard campus

Brenna Hanly

Brenna Hanly is mobile catalyst at Mullen's mediahub

By Brenna Hanly

Maybe you have seen QR codes before but never activated one, maybe you have never seen one, or maybe you are in advertising and you think they are already passé. 

In the advertising world, we are all myopic. Because QR codes are becoming more and more a part of our conversation, we forget that the majority of this country does not even own a smartphone capable of reading the codes. 

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To gauge QR acceptance with real experience, I crafted a marketing campaign for the recent Boston Book Festival. There was no money to put behind the effort, so everything I did had to be free.

The experiment. The Boston Book Festival promotion consisted of outdoor signage or messages printed on pieces of paper. 

The messages included a provocative quote from one of the authors participating in the event and a QR code that directed the user to the Boston Book Festival registration page. 

One version consisted of simply that, the quote and the QR code, and a second version consisted of the quote, the QR code and directions that explained how to download a QR reader, scan the code and what to expect if you did. 

Through a QR generator (kaywa) and a bitly URL shortener, I was able to create the codes and track each version separately. 

Because college students are likely to be interested in a book fair, I distributed 160 signs on the Harvard campus for one day (a Sunday). They were placed on outdoor billboards on the quad, on bulletin boards in dorms, and throughout the campus.

While imperfect, the goals of the experiment were to 1) get an understanding of total activation and 2) directionally gauge whether the version that included instruction outperformed the version without instruction. 

Oh, and 3) increase attendance at the Boston Book Festival, which, by the way, was a free event occurring in Boston on Oct. 16 in Copley Square.

The results. Thirty total individuals activated the QR code. Eighteen came from the version with instruction and 12 from the version without instruction. 

Let us assume a 5,000-traffic estimate, considering approximately 7,000 Harvard undergrads, a slower day of the week, distribution occurring largely on the undergrad quad only, and they were only up for a short time period. 

We will also take a guess – yes, a guess – that, on average, each person saw two signs. That leads us to 0.3 percent response rate. 

The takeaways. [Caveat: None of these insights are grounded in statistically significant findings or a perfect experiment, but rather they are informed observations based on real activity.]

1. Consumers are activating QR codes more than they are clicking on banners online – in some cases. While a 0.3 percent response rate is nothing to write home about, it was achieved at no out-of-pocket cost and is a higher rate than some online banner campaigns.

2. Consumers need instruction on how to activate the QR code. We can also gauge that we are at a point where QR codes are still in their infancy and consumers need education on how to use them.

As they continue to be preloaded in the newer devices, we would expect their adoption rate to increase accordingly.

3. The QR code itself should be seen as a teaser tactic as well as a way to engage consumers. Interestingly, the goal of QR codes is generally to activate otherwise static media experiences. 

However, while the intended effect occurred for 0.3 percent of estimated traffic, the QR codes more effectively served a different purpose. 

I would say at least eight out of ten consumers walking by stopped to read the signage because they were confused about the QR code. 

Although they did not act on the instructions, they paid attention to the signage due to the code. 

While the folks at CTIA have argued that QR codes are ineffective for advertising in their nascent stage, I would urge all marketers to consider their stopping power as well as activation ability.

THESE FINDINGS have been compiled from one simple experiment. Do you or your agency have larger scale QR code campaigns running? Do you agree with these observations and are there additional insights to add?

Brenna Hanly is mobile catalyst at Boston agency Mullen’s mediahub. Reach her at .

Related content: Columns, Brenna Hanly, Mullen, QR codes, Harvard, Boston Book Festival, mobile commerce, mobile marketing, mobile

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Comments on "The QR code experiment at the Harvard campus"

  1. George Manlangit says:

    November 15, 2010 at 11:54pm

    And this experiment is performed on the genX crowd. My take on QR code is that it can become an attention grabber as in this case but how about those who have regular phones that does not have scanner or mobile internet.

    That's why I think SMS is still a much viable option because most phones are capable of SMS.
  2. Kelly McIvor says:

    November 15, 2010 at 4:50pm

    Interesting experiment. I wonder how much of the response is driven by curiosity? That is, how many people participate just to see what their shiny new smartphone can do?
    The thing I like about QR codes is that they create a little mystery that someone can solve using their phone. It is an opportunity for the advertiser or promoter to really delight the mobile user. Of course, it needs to work.

    Also, even when the readers come pre-loaded on devices, people who have never used the codes/readers will still need instructions on how to engage. Eliminating the download requirement certainly reduces the required steps but doesn't necessarily increase engagement, IMO.
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