Mobile Marketing and QR Codes: Some Key Tips

Last June, Ball State University released a study showing that of college students owning phones, 49 percent owned smartphones; the number had doubled since 2009. In the year since, many colleges and universities have launched mobile marketing initiatives or mobile apps for students and alumni, and a few admissions offices have begun experimenting with uses of Quick Response, or QR, codes, those black-and-white matrix barcodes that can be scanned into students' smartphones to provide URLs to specific online content.

Given the increasing use of smartphones among the college-aged, this year is an excellent time for your admissions staff to familiarize themselves with QR codes and with mobile marketing in general. In an interview with Academic Impressions this week, Web marketing guru Bob Johnson, president of Bob Johnson Consulting LLC, offered the following practical tips and caveats for experimenting with QR codes.

AI. Bob, thanks for joining us for this interview. Recently, we've seen a few examples of fresh uses of QR codes in admissions and orientation. For example:

  • Orientation staff at Washington and Lee this year welcomed new students while wearing T-shirts with QR codes; when scanned into students' smartphones, these codes took students to mobile-friendly websites for a variety of campus services
  • Hamilton College used a QR code for a recruiting poster this year when reaching out to high school students at feeder schools

Bob, are there recent examples of uses of QR codes for admissions that strike you as very innovative, and why?

Bob Johnson. Well, "very innovative" is pretty subjective. An innovation by itself isn't necessarily a virtue. In the two examples you use above, the "poster in the high school" approach from Hamilton College is more practical and innovative than the multiple QR codes on a T-shirt used at Washington and Lee. The T-shirt example is a good way to publicize the availability of the QR codes, but I'd also print them on other orientation material so that they were more easily accessible than getting up close and personal with someone's T-shirt.

The comment from Hamilton in The Washington Post that nearly all high school students knew what a QR code was is interesting. Conventional wisdom has held for the last year or so that until code readers were standard equipment on smartphones, not many people would take time to download a reader (especially one they had to pay for) and use them. Unless I missed it, there still isn't a code reader preloaded on the iPhone, but many Android phones have them installed. And because of their lower price, sales of Androids to teens have been predicted to be higher than iPhones. Put all of that together with the Hamilton note, and experimenting with something like this makes sense. I suspect that Hamilton is tracking the response to this and will know at the end of the fall recruitment season just how effective it was compared to more traditional posters.

A few weeks ago I received a copy of a new view book from Westminster College in Utah that used QR codes throughout the book to take readers to more information about topics that interested them, including academic areas. That's an approach that makes sense to me and nicely blends new technology and printed marketing pieces. I've also heard that University of Toronto has a full-page QR code on the front or back cover of its view book. I haven't seen that one yet.

Are the Hamilton and Westminster uses "innovative"? We'll let each person decide that for themself. But each one does represent a way to mix old and new marketing techniques. The results will be measurable, so we should know more soon about just how effective each use is.

QR codes also seem popular with many of the executive MBA programs advertising in airplane flight magazines. I'll talk a little more about this shortly.

AI. Bob, what are some key opportunities that admissions and marketing professionals should be aware of or be trying?

Bob Johnson. In print publications and advertisements, use QR codes to deep link people to mobile-friendly Web pages that reflect the top tasks the potential students want to complete at various points in the recruitment cycle. Start with a list of academic programs and basic information about each of them, including a link with each to a mobile-friendly admissions application. Other areas to include in the deep-linking: the tuition cost calculator, profile of enrolled students, directions to campus.

In "search" materials, use a QR code direct to an inquiry link. Don't make it the only way to the inquiry, but offer the link as an option.

Note that QR codes don't have to go direct to a website. Use them as well to link to YouTube videos that you know are popular and are likely of the highest interest to potential students (not, in other words, to the video of your president addressing your campus convocation).

Also, take a look at the "QR Stuff" website -- this is a great opportunity to experiment with some of the variations and possibilities.

AI. Are there any important "caveats" to be mindful of?

Bob Johnson. Here are four.

First, the most important caveat is to remember that people are using a smartphone to read the QR code and that means a small screen. QR codes should link people to mobile-friendly Web pages. If they don't go to pages optimized for viewing from a smartphone, the chance that people will bounce right off them increases. In the airline flight magazine examples above, some of the links go to "mobile" pages and some do not. I'd be willing to bet serious money on which ones are more effective. City University of New York got it right with this example:


Mobile Site for CUNY


Immediately as the page opens, the potential student will see the links to the academic programs promoted in the ad. No finger flicking is needed to bring up tiny type to a reasonable viewing size. If you don't have Web pages designed for mobile viewing, why are you using QR codes to lead people to website pages? Better to stay with videos you know will play well on a smartphone.

Second, also consider if a person can easily use a QR code reader where you have placed the image. Consider the airline magazine example. Most people, I've learned, don't take these from the plane. And you can't use the reader on the plane. So how well will these work? I suppose one conclusion is that any inquiry received from a person who saw the ad and took the magazine off the plane is a serious one indeed. The basic caveat: don't put these where smartphones won't be able to read them.

Third, test your QR code on different QR code readers. Visit the iPhone app store and you'll find dozens upon dozens of readers. No sane person will try to test them all. One suggestion: test up to five with the highest number of reviews. It is reasonable to think that these have been downloaded most often. RedLaser, for instance, has by far the highest number at nearly 2,900. The QR Reader for iPhone has nearly 1,000 reviews. I use Bakodo, which has over 300 reviews. Each of these is free and the reviews are good. Since QR code readers are not installed at the start on iPhones, consider recommending a specific reader that you are certain will work with your codes.

Finally, make sure that the QR code destination offers something of value to the people using it. Don't waste people's time using a QR code just to show that you are up-to-date with the latest cool technology.

AI. Thank you, Bob! We appreciate the practical advice, and look forward to our next conversation.