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Are QR Codes Worth Putting On Your Trade Show Displays?

There’s a growing interest in QR codes for trade show display graphics lately.  While already very popular in Asia, QR codes are just starting to take off in North America.   If you’ve been considering them, this article is for you.  I describe what QR codes are, why to use them, and what the hurdles are to a good experience.  I finish with a short list of recommendations if you put QR codes on your trade show displays.

What are QR codes?

QR codes can act as a hyperlink for print and multimedia when scanned by a smart phone.  When you take a picture of a QR code with a smart phone that has a suitable app, it will launch the webpage automatically on your phone.  Just search your app store for “QR code scanner” and get a free app.  You can try it with the QR code here:

If you take a picture of this QR code with your smart phone that has the proper bar scanning app, it will take you to www.skyline.com.

QR codes are free to make.  They can’t be stolen, as they will only direct people to a web address you control.  Just search on Google on “free QR code generator” and find a website that can make them for you.  You give the QR code generator the URL of the webpage you want to link to, and it will generate a unique QR code you can download and use as art on a brochure, ad, business card, or even your trade show display graphics.

I’ve had two great experiences with QR codes.  Once I wanted more info on a new toy in a catalog, and there was a QR code next to the product photo.  I snapped a photo and was rewarded with a great two-minute video that demoed the product way better than any paper catalog could.  I’ve also worn a shirt to events with the QR code for the Skyline blog, and started conversations with it.

We test QR codes at EXHIBITOR2011

Skyline tested QR codes at our most recent show, EXHIBITOR2011 in March 2011.  We put 6 QR codes in our two booths.  Each QR code was a link to a YouTube video about the specific Skyline display system the QR code was on.  Below each QR code was the headline, “View the Movie” to give them a reason to scan them.  We linked to YouTube movies, expecting YouTube to have the fewest issues streaming the videos.

Here are some of the QR codes we had in our EXHIBITOR2011 Booth. The QR codes linked to movies for each specific Skyline display system they were on. As you can see, the attendees preferred to interact with live booth staffers.

Actually, our QR codes didn’t point directly at the YouTube URLs for the movies, but instead made a hop via bit.ly, a free service for shortening URLs.  That way we could use bit.ly’s reporting ability to track how many times the URLs were accessed, each day of the show.  Here’s what happened:

Overall, the counts were disappointingly small for all the graphics space we used, and compared to the much, much higher number of face-to-face conversations we had and the hundreds of leads we took.  Plus, many of the “clicks” on Monday for Envoy were actually the booth staffers trying out the QR codes, because that’s where we held booth staff training.   So, there just weren’t that many “clicks” to make QR codes worth using — for our audience.

And for the small number of attendees who did access the QR codes, it still wasn’t a good experience. Within the confines of the Mandalay Bay show hall, many smart phones simply did not work because of bad connections to the internet.  The bar code scanner app within the smart phone would recognize the QR code, call up the web page, but then the page would not load.  How often does the same thing happen in other show halls?

QR codes interfere with clear trade show graphics

The best place to put a QR code is right about eye level, so attendees don’t have to stoop or stretch to take a picture with their smart phones.  But that’s very valuable graphic real estate!   That’s the same place you need to also have a clear graphic message about why attendees should stop and visit your booth.  The QR code gets in the way of that.

It’s true, having someone take a picture of your QR code and walk away is better than taking a brochure and running away – at least they won’t toss the brochure in the hotel room trash can.  But don’t miss the opportunity to interact with the attendee and get their contact info.

While smart phones are becoming more and more prevalent, not every smart phone automatically scans a QR code when you take a picture with it – some require a bar code scanner app to be loaded up.  If your clients and prospects are more tech savvy, like attendees at CES or BlogWorld, then QR codes could be worth it for you.

7 tips to using QR codes on your trade show display graphics

If you feel your audience is a tech-friendly group and thus decide to add QR codes to your trade show exhibit graphics, then do these 7 things:

  1. Place them on your trade show graphics where they can be seen and easily scanned – if you’re going to use them, really use them
  2. Give show visitors a reason to scan the QR code, such as “Get more info” or “Sign up for our newsletter” or “See the movie” or “Scan to enter contest,” and then link to a show-specific landing page or a webpage that has the great content you promised and is optimized for mobile devices.
  3. Explain how they work to your staff…and ensure each staffer has a smart phone in case the attendee doesn’t
  4. Make sure your staff knows to approach anyone who is scanning your QR code and use it as an opportunity to engage them in a conversation
  5. Test if the QR codes launch the internet inside the show hall every show … before the show starts
  6. Set up the links so that “click” counts can be tracked during the show days, such as with bit.ly
  7. Track them especially close the first few shows to see if they work for your audience

Sure, QR codes have the cool tech factor, and we’d like some of that to rub off on us.  But let’s not get so caught up in the technology that we forget our marketing goals.  I would rather spend our very valuable trade show time talking with prospects about what their problems are and how we can help solve them – instead of explaining how to use a QR code, or worse, explaining why the QR code isn’t working in the show hall.  And why have a booth visitor go off onto a website, when you’ve got a live booth staffer right there to engage them?

If your audience has reached the technology tipping point and you can use QR codes to quickly advance your trade show interactions, then use them.  But if not, then think twice before you use up your valuable display graphic real estate and your booth visitors’ time.

What's Working In Exhibiting White PaperWant to find out what else is working (or not working)?  Then click here to get your free copy of the 32-page white paper, What’s Working In Exhibiting and see what over 170 exhibitors say drives their trade show success.

About the Author

Mike Thimmesch was Skyline Exhibits’ Director of Customer Engagement, for over 25 years. He is now retired and spends his time freelancing, traveling, and enjoying time with his family.

26 responses to “Are QR Codes Worth Putting On Your Trade Show Displays?

  1. Another great post, Mike!

    Here’s my biggest issue with QR codes that I’ve used in my booths: People don’t know how to use the scanning apps. Usually, this ends up with a conversation about how to download the app, how to scan, what it does. A blithering waste of my sales time.

    One of the biggest problems is that the scanning apps are not automatically bundled into smartphones. I think that will go a long way toward helping adoption and use rates.

    1. Thanks, Heidi. It’s good to experiment with new technology that can better our trade show results, but we also can’t get so far ahead of our audience that it distracts from our core messages. For some show audiences QR codes are a great match. Ours just wasn’t there yet. It will help even more when not only the scanning apps are automatically bundled, but when all smart phones don’t require an app — you just take a picture and the phone figures out you took a picture of a QR code and it does the rest.

      We tried another new technology at the same show — our own experimental app on iPads, with great success. Our portfolio of exhibit designs were far sharper and loaded much faster than from a website. That was a major hit where new technology enabled a superior attendee experience.

    2. Heidi,

      I can only see positive in teaching someone how to use a QR app, not only are you interacting with them, they are more likely to remember you plus you’re establishing a better relationship. What a perfect opportunity to discuss products and make a sale.

      Do QR Codes work, maybe? I’m not to hot about using them, unless you’re operating a mobile-related company or website that really utilizes them, I’d stay away for now.

  2. I use QR codes from bwscan.com on my displays as well as my business cards. I agree that you need to provide details on how to scan the code but that is a small inconvienience for the marketing I get out of QR codes.

  3. Great post Mike, at our last seminar we used QR codes to promote our event before, during and after. Our attendees enjoyed this feature; in fact it prompted one client to implement QR codes at an upcoming event. I think your 7 tips just about nail it.

  4. Wow, thank you for publishing your findings. I guess this technology is still young, but I imagine it won’t be long before it becomes more widespread.

    I’d be interested to hear about your experimental app for iPad – if it’s not a trade secret :-)

    1. Hello JS,

      The app is what many trade show technology people are calling “an interactive” — a tech tool to engage and facilitate conversation with a prospect. Much of it was just showing great exhibit designs we had recently done. The iPad allowed us to show very high resolution images in a rapid-fire fashion with a very cool, intuitive interface. That’s because we did not try to use wireless to hook up to the Internet, but had all the data on the iPad inside the app itself.

  5. It was also interesting to see the booth picture with the QR codes in use. I realize you had codes for several products, but I had been envisioning one more prominant code rather than several small ones (perhaps due to the amount of real estate signage I’ve seen recently with larger QR codes).

    1. Renate,

      Yes, we put the QR codes on various exhibit systems, so they were several smaller QR codes instead of one larger one. If we had one big image, that may have attracted more attention. But then we would have run into the same issues of our much of our audience not being ready for QR codes yet, having to explain the app, and then dealing with the internet not working on their smartphones in the show hall. And all the while, giving up that bigger piece of graphics real estate that could be used for branding or messaging.

      I do like the idea of QR codes on real estate signs — you’re in your car looking at houses, and you’ve got your smartphone, so click and get the details on the house. As long as the realtors don’t neglect their traditional marketing such as phone numbers, paper, and web URLs.

        1. Hello Renate,

          We considered and ultimately did not get branded QR codes, but we did go beyond the standard black-and-white. If you look closely at the photo of the booth, you can see we used a colored background that fit with the booth graphics. Before we printed the graphics we tested these colored backgrounds to ensured they worked.

  6. k. Nice ideas. Great comments.
    Here are a few observations.
    First, maybe you covered this at the show, but based on the scan of your code above, your code resolves to a non mobile optimized website. Major mistake. Consider this – you spend thousands of dollars on beautiful graphics for your 20 x 20 only to require the attendees to view your booth through a pinhole. Get it. Don’t make the mistake of directing the code to a non optimized landing page. Its a killer and causes even more confusion and frustration.

    I agree that that QR technology is not smooth enough… yet. But as smartphone penetration continues to rise, and scanning becomes as normal as texting, people will expect it. Its a great way to deliver pdfs or sales sheets and save on printing for one. Its green. And dont forgot all those people that dont want to talk to a rep. Give them a chance to scan a code and look at your products on their own so you don’t miss them entirely. Maybe they will appreciate this and follow up when ready.

    We have seen the ups and the downs just like you have so eloquently pointed out, and their are certain shows that make more sense to use QR technology. Bottom line.
    You must employ three things in order to have any chance of success.

    Connect – QR or other 2d code
    Engage – mobile optimized landing pages or websites
    Measure – look at scans for ROI

    We’ve done it and can do it.
    QR technology is coming.
    Get used to it, or get left out.

    1. Hello Steve,

      Thanks for your comment, Steve. Yes, we directed people to YouTube, a site meant to work on smartphones. We wanted to have a good reason for people to scan our QR codes, so we put on our graphics they could see a movie about the products. Rather than load the videos onto our own servers, which would have been problematic, we directed them to YouTube where we had loaded all the videos into our own YouTube channel. That worked well outside the show hall, but YouTube was an issue inside the show hall.

      But even as a site that should have worked, the extremely low number of views (just 12 overall on the last two days of the show combined) showed it didn’t matter if our landing page was optimized for mobile devices. Our audience wasn’t ready yet. That’s the point of testing it, and measuring it. QR codes may reach a tipping point and become more than mainstream (like Facebook) or it may not (RSS feeds). So we’ll keep an eye on it.

      I will add your point about mobile optimized landing pages or websites to the list of 7 steps for QR codes on trade show displays. That was implied in the main article, but it’s a good idea to make it explicit.

      Thanks again, Mike.

  7. QR Codes are the thing of the past. There are way too many apps and all of them interpret the information differently. You all should look into Microsoft Tag. It is the next generation of QR type codes and has built in tracking, so no need to use bit.ly. Also with MS Tag, the actual information is not stored in the QR code itself, but online. So if you decide you change some info in the Tag, you do it online, and the next time someone scans that Tag, they see the new info.

  8. Mike,

    Extremely well written and clearly presents some very good ideas. I especially appreciated the ‘why we’re exhibiting,’ warning hence we don’t spend valuable time teaching prospects how QR Codes work and not why they need to choose us. Thanks Mike, great job.

  9. Perhaps giving more prominence to the QR code on the Trade show booth would have translated to the participants as a call to action! That being said, with a little forethought in preparing materials for trade shows, include a sign, brochure or flyer with directions how to scan a QR code somewhere near your QR code. If people learn about QR codes from your brochure (with your QR code printed on it), they may likely keep it or use it as an example to share their QR code experience with others at and after the trade show. That can translate to more eyes on your brochure and products as others share your message for you!

    Try using more than one QR code linking to totally different landing experiences and see which one has better results for future trade shows.

    Several QR code generator/management sites will let you create QR codes where the code is updatable. You can even change the QR code’s message/landing experience on the fly from your booth.

    Some QR Code services use GPS to determine which message the QR code scanner will receive. Why not use that service on your trade show literature and provide a different message at the trade show from that when the QR code is scanned anywhere else?

    The QR code experience is only limited by the imagination of the implementing team and the cell phone coverage of the end user!

  10. We used a QR code for our press kit at a recent major trade show and the media loved it! They didn’t have to haul around a tangible item – be it a paper press kit or a DVD. Plus we got “points” for being green!
    I’m skeptical about the potential of QR at captial equipment shows however. The widespread use of technology hasn’t permeated to our user base…yet!

  11. I read through the description here and wonder if there is a disconnect in understanding the audience and the available tools?

    We use QR codes for a variety of projects but they are always pre-screened to the number of smartphones in use by the audience and the adoption of social tools. Some audience industries are far ahead of the curve, while other industries are painfully absent.

    I also would ever recommend using YouTube as a destination… you lose all sorts of tracking information and analytics regarding who used them and when.

    In this case the QR codes simply seemed to lack a value-add motivation (perhaps a contest or information whitepaper would have driven value-to-click.)

    To answer the question of the article: I’d typically point to instances where QR codes can be used away from the booth and staffers are not present. Using short links and QR codes in sponsor/vendor signage has a much higher ROI and action level.

    1. Hello Barry,

      Thanks for your expert comments! We used this show as an opportunity to try out QR codes, and discovered that our audience, although marketers, were behind the curve on QR code adoption. As you said, we found that QR codes are more useful when you don’t have a person (such as a booth staffer) present.

      I’m curious, do you have a way to measure who used a QR code and when just by them scanning the QR code with their smartphone, or does it require that they fill out a form on the destination page?

  12. Great article! Event organizers and exhibitors ask me about QR codes all the time. Though I love them there is a time and a place, and whether not they will be used largely depends on the comfort-level of your audience. At ConExpo/Con-Agg, Hyundai (who sells enormous construction equipment there) used them on the sign next to each piece of equipment in their booth. The QR Code linked to a PDF about that specific piece of equipment and included a very detailed spec sheet (something you wouldn’t typically display). In this case the QR code augmented the attendee experience. They were able to see the equipment in person, talk to a sales rep, and also walk away with the details they needed in a green and convenient manner.

    1. Thanks for sharing a story of success, Siobhan. Attendees really do want to know those detailed specifications on the products they see at shows, and that is a good way to get them. Nice to have another Event Prof from Twitter commenting on our blog!

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