Four Ways Political Campaigns Can Use QR Codes

New guest post! This one comes in from Ben Donahower and covers a topic we haven’t addressed here before: how campaigns can use QR codes, those cellphone-friendly rectangular descendents of barcodes that have been appearing lately on signs and hand-outs. Ben writes about campaign yard signs for Campaign Trail Yard Signs (appropriately enough) and has worked professionally on campaigns from state representative to president. You can follow Ben at @iapprovethismsg.

Four Ways Political Campaigns Can Use QR Codes

By Ben Donahower

QR code of shortlink for this article

Political campaigns are quickly picking up on the power of QR codes for good reason. A third of smartphone users scan QR codes and by Christmas 2011 1 in 2 Americans will have a smartphone. The growth rate is even more impressive! In the summer of 2008, only 10% of the population had a smartphone. In two and half years the number of people using smartphones has quintupled.

QR code scanning rates are also skyrocketing. Between these two trends, a majority of the population could be scanning QR codes by the presidential election.

In addition to the compelling numbers, this technology is just so simple to implement there is no excuse not to try it. I recommend creating QR codes with XZING (pronounced Zebra Crossing), which is an open source QR code generator. Anyone can create a QR code that encodes a:

  • Calendar event
  • Contact information
  • Email address
  • Geo location
  • Phone number
  • SMS / text message
  • Text
  • URL
  • Wifi network

Scanning the code will send the encoded item to the user’s phone instantly, making them a powerful tool for following up on a print piece — or even a television commercial.

QR codes are versatile. Political campaigns can use QR codes to engage voters through diverse channels including direct mail, yard signs, television ads, and campaign websites.

Political Direct Mail

This is the most common way that campaigns are using QR codes. Chances are if you haven’t already gotten political mail with a QR code on it, you’ve at least received some form of commercial direct mail with a code. Often, commercial direct mail will link the QR code to a coupon or sweepstakes.

While a political campaign won’t have a coupon, campaigns will get a far better response if they give a voter a good reason to scan the QR code. Perhaps the campaign is running a sweepstakes to meet the candidate or to win a free ticket to an upcoming fundraiser. More likely, however, the campaign might offer exclusive information about the campaign or promise the voter that they will be the first to know about important developments in the race [Ed. note: the same way the 2008 Obama campaign used the promise of early news of his V.P. announcement to build a text-message list].

Campaign Yard Signs and Other Signs

This doesn’t work for every race, but campaigns that expect a lot of foot traffic passing by their campaign yard signs should consider putting a QR code on them. A great call to action on a campaign sign is for the voter to like your campaign Facebook page, follow you on Twitter, or connect on other social networks. You can also use the QR code as a way for supporters to request a yard sign for their own lawn!

Political campaigns that flyer for events or table should test using QR codes on their campaign posters. Finally, campaigns can test putting QR codes on signs at their campaign headquarters asking supporters to do anything from sign up for campaign updates or to schedule themselves for a volunteer shift.

Campaign Television Ads

All the same innovative use cases for QR codes apply when using them on TV spots. There are, however, a couple cautions with television. First, it’s really important to test to see how big your QR code needs to be for viewers to scan it. Since you can’t control for the resolution of the screen of the viewer, you can either size the QR code with poor screen quality in mind knowing that the code will take up a substantial portion of the screen or use a smaller QR code that some viewers won’t be able to scan.

Another factor to consider is how long you will have the QR code up on the screen. You’d be surprised how many QR codes on TV ads are only on the screen for a split second. Viewers who are interested in scanning a QR code need a lot more time. It takes at the very least five or ten seconds for a viewer to decide to scan the code, get their cell phone, open the application, and then scan the QR code.

On the Candidate Website

It might seem counterintuitive for a campaign to use a QR code on their website since the voter is already in a digital space, but it can work. If a campaign has a mobile app or other content that is optimized for mobile, a QR code on the campaign website will make it easy for voters who are viewing the website on a desktop, laptop, or tablet to scan the code and consume the content as the campaign intended.

Give QR Codes a Try

The secret sauce to QR codes or any other marketing tactic, for that matter, is to test. Unlike so many other marketing techniques, you can try QR codes without addition cost to the campaign. Try QR codes on your campaign materials and be sure to test the results. If it doesn’t work, stop or go back to the drawing board and try again. If it works, then you know that the campaign should be using QR codes more regularly.

Thanks Ben! I bet those little suckers are going to start popping up on campaign signs all over the place. Yay, a new online-offline connection to have fun with. – cpd

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Ben Donahower
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  • Lots of discussion going on on Twitter my username is @iapprovethismsg been discussing QR with @MichaelJHaas @seanholihan @jasonkenney and of course @epolitics.

  • Nice article Ben. I’d like to include a link to our PoliticalQRCodes(TM) site, but I do not want to commercialize this comment if that is not permitted.

  • As Ben noted above, this piece sparked a lively discussion on Twitter, which I’ve copied below. Any mistakes in ordering are mine:

    .@epolitics @iapprovethismsg QR codes still strike me as a trend in search of an audience, but still worth exploring.

    .@jasonkenney I see what you’re getting at but I think it may be b/c people r still getting used r them. QR codes hav on/offline potential

    .@epolitics There’s a lot of potential in QR codes, but adoption seems to be less organic then expected these days. Still too early to tell.

    .@jasonkenney Like so much in this world, the answer seems to be “Future cloudy, ask again later.”

    .@epolitics Give that 8-ball another shake!

    @iapprovethismsg @epolitics QR codes are a bit top down, they’re embraced by marketers and companies but organic growth has yet to kick in.

    @iapprovethismsg @epolitics Could all be too soon to tell, but still…

    @jasonkenney @iapprovethismsg @epolitics Here we can agree – not sold on these yet. Most voters are older and don’t use smart phones.

    @SeanHolihan @iapprovethismsg @epolitics they’re quick and easy and worth playing with but very low on the totem pole.

    .@SeanHolihan U hit on a good point, the gap betw voters & smartphone users. What a/b grps w hi cell adoption tho, like latinos @jasonkenney

    @epolitics @jasonkenney @iapprovethismsg Might be useful in future, or certain audiences – overall though, not for current likely voters.

    @SeanHolihan @epolitics @jasonkenney how i see it is there is no $ downside to testing, so test then make determination whether to stop/more

    @jasonkenney @SeanHolihan @epolitics agreed Jason! this is a detail

    @SeanHolihan @jasonkenney @epolitics the trends indicate that it’s not going to be more than a yr or 2 till nearly all adopt smartphones

    @SeanHolihan @jasonkenney @epolitics for 2011, definitely a niche tactic for a race with the right demographics and need to test

    @jasonkenney @epolitics i think the data show that there is relatively decent penetration among smartphone users

  • Great post Ben. I was just getting ready to write about QR codes when I saw this post. I like your ideas, and will be reading your yard sign site in its entirety.

    The thing about QR codes is that it still takes too long to open an app, scan the code, and get to the result. As these “augmented reality” applications become faster and more commonplace, we’ll see higher adoption.

    You can see marketers experimenting with codes in the metro, but too often they don’t explicitly say what the code is going to do. Scanning a code just to “see what would happen” was a novelty for me that lasted exactly one use.

    The single best place to use a QR code would be inside of a restroom stall door, right at eye-level, but I haven’t seen that yet. Who doesn’t play with their phone and look for something to “distract” them while doing the business?

  • Thank you Derek!

    You bring up a great criticism. Point well taken. I think that RFID ( will ultimately deal with some of these issues as well.

    Just brainstorming, I am thinking that of the times that I’ve used QR codes. Most recently, I scanned one at a Firestone tire store for a $25 gift card.

    There IS enough time at the point of sale. The POS of a campaign is at the polling place. You could have QR codes there that link to an ‘I voted’ Facebook app or to tweet out who they supported at the polls.

  • Smart phones are another sets of tools for politicians. You should check out the following applications called MobilCTI Power Dialer and Mobile Power Dialer Congress (free) for Android Phones.

    These applications will allow grass roots movements to:
    1)Call contacts one after another from list
    2)Automatically track number of attempts
    3)Schedule/Track callbacks.

    Will be a great tool for supporters to spread the word.