QR Code Test – Bleeding Edge Marketing Lessons Learned

I always enjoy testing out new things. So when I had the opportunity to test the performance of QR codes in a relatively controlled environment, I couldn’t resist. Here is what I did and the results.

The Environment:
Balticon 45, An established 4-day yearly convention put on by the Baltimore Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Society.
Estimated attendance: 2000
Ages: Family Friendly. All Ages, primarily ages 25-60
Interests: science fiction and fantasy literature (reading and writing), costuming, art, filk, anime, table top games, live role playing games, science fiction and fantasy films, hard science, new media

The Offer:
A 99 cent eBook anthology of three adult science fiction romance short stories.

The Medium:
A series of five 5×7 double-sided post cards left at the various hand-out tables around the convention. The cards were professionally designed and were identical except for offering Tip #1, Tip #2, etc.

On the front was a teaser, offering a tip and a QR code programmed to return a block of text with a link to purchase the eBook at the bottom. There was a url printed under the code for those people who didn’t have a smartphone.

The back featured back-cover copy for the anthology and a url QR code that linked directly to a sales page. Under the code was another url for those not possessing smartphones.

The Process:
I intentionally kept all other exposures for the book to a minimum, including publishing the ebook at the last minute so that it didn’t get released into the mainstream before I could test the QR codes. To do this, I set up the web landing pages before publication so that the cards could be printed. I also had the anthology professionally edited and a professionally designed cover created. The pen name I published it under had been updating a blog and a twitter account for over a year, but had not previously published anything to sell. In short – there was no real established following to skew the results.

The Outcome:
Since the anthology was done under a pen name, I had the opportunity to prowl the convention anonymously and watch both the people and some of the interactions with the cards. QR codes were mentioned in the panel discussions, but I quickly realized that while some of these people owned eReaders, most preferred traditional print. There were also a high percentage who did not own smartphones and had no immediate plans to purchase one; expense was a primary inhibitor. Of those who did own smartphones, I witnessed that many didn’t know what the QR code was and didn’t have the app necessary to scan it.

Case in point: One of the guest speakers for a panel I sat in on mentioned that she’d picked up a business card from one of the tables that had used a QR code in place of a url. She lamented that she’d not be able to visit the person’s site because she didn’t own a smartphone. So here was a case where the individual knew what the code did but was unable to respond to the ad because the designer forgot to include a url. I scanned it for her because I’m nice like that.

I refreshed two of the piles of cards over the course of the weekend and estimate that around 100-250 were picked up (around 12.5% of the attendees). There is no way to tell how many scanned the tip codes, but no one visited the tip urls. 9 people visited the anthology purchase page (3.6% of card holders), the url programmed into the QR code. 10 others (4% of card holders) went to the website’s root page indicating that they responded to the card, but not to the QR code.

The Conclusion:
I need to try this at a different convention. While on paper, the demographics of this convention were sound, the low percentage of smartphone owners and even lower percentage of QR code familiarity made this an inconclusive test.

I have plans to run this test again at two other conventions with slightly different demographics. Since I have a few extra months to prepare, I’ll try a couple of other delivery methods for the codes.

The takeaway for marketers is that while running campaigns with QR codes in them is a great idea, it’s too soon to rely on them solely. For the average American consumer, this is bleeding edge technology. The consumer has to meet several criteria before they’ll even consider scanning one:

  • Own a smartphone
  • Know what a QR code is/does
  • Have a barcode reader app installed

Based on my observations, I believe that Nielson’s estimate that 1 in 2 Americans will own a smartphone by December of 2012 is extremely optimistic. In a depressed economy, we can’t rely on the American public to be rushing out to purchase smartphones, especially with the major providers cutting out unlimited data plans. Companies are cutting back as well, so we can’t rely on employers to provide them either.

We also need to remember that owning a smartphone doesn’t necessarily equate to knowing all the cool stuff it can do or how to do all that cool stuff. A period of education is required and until that time, alternate methods of responding to the ads are essential, as is telling the viewer what to do with the code and what they’ll get for doing it.

I have plans for more play with the codes late this summer. Stay tuned.

See also: “Effective QR – A Life Lesson

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This entry was posted by on Tuesday, June 14, 2011.
Filed under: Articles, For Writers, Marketing
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