Do QR Codes Work for Public Engagement?

If you’ve been living on Planet Earth for the past year or so, you’ve probably seen little square, pixelated images cropping up on everything from restaurant tables to product labels to a $14-million Super Bowl commercial. No, those little boxes aren’t alien messages, they’re Quick Response bar codes, or QR codes for short.

QR codes, when scanned by your smartphone, take you directly to a website link – no more typing in a long web address, searching around on Google, or holding on to paper scraps that just clutter up your purse or pocket. QR codes are not only a way to avoid touching a menu in the COVID era, they’re also a way to connect consumers directly to products online. Now that the cameras on iPhones and Androids can automatically scan a QR code and serve up a link, eMarketer predicts that the number of U.S. smartphone users scanning a QR code will increase from 83.4 million in 2022 to 99.5 million in 2025.

With 75% of consumers planning to use QR codes going forward (The Drum and YouGov), is it time for public engagement professionals to start using them to collect community input? The answer, undoubtedly, is yes…but don’t get your hopes up too high yet.

Our clients increasingly want to see evidence that our public engagement efforts are reaching people who don’t traditionally participate in municipal decision-making. Because 85% of Americans use a smartphone (Pew), it stands to reason that reaching people through their mobile devices would be a quick and easy way to engage, particularly for community members who don’t, won’t, or can’t attend public meetings. Allowing people to connect immediately and directly to the questions we want them to consider lets us get real-time feedback from just about anywhere.

Since 2021, our public engagement experts at Highland Planning have been incorporating QR codes into outreach efforts. Most often these QR codes link to a survey, a meeting registration page, or a project on our new public involvement app Instant Input.

At Highland Planning, we’ve used QR codes at a variety of pop-up events, including a neighborhood block party, a farmer’s market, a high school musical, a library book sale, and an outdoor winter celebration. We’ve even put colorful stickers on the sidewalk in front of vacant buildings to get thoughts on what should be developed there.

We’ve found that we get the best response when

  • The ask is simple and clear. People are more likely to scan a QR code when they know exactly what’s going to show up on their phone. “Take a one-question survey” typically performs better than “Download our app!”
  • People have time to engage. Trying to get someone to scan a QR code when they’re urgently on their way somewhere is like trying to hail a moving freight train. When we hit the streets of Niagara Falls on a 90-degree July day to promote Instant Input, the only thing on pedestrians’ minds was getting to the Falls or getting back to their car. Engaging through QR codes works better when you have a captive audience, such as the audience at a high school drama performance. Our ad in a theater program for “High School Musical” in Massena, New York, last Spring resulted in more than 80 survey responses in one evening.
  • The QR code can travel. Even if your audience doesn’t have time to scan on the spot, you can still get decent results if you can send the QR code with them. At a winter festival in the Adirondacks, we got cross-country skiers to stop and warm themselves by a bonfire. That gave us a chance to talk to them about our survey and put a small card with a QR code into their mittened hands or ski jacket pocket.

Do QR codes work for public engagement? They certainly can, and the cost to try it out is low – you can generate a simple QR code for free and incorporate it into materials you’re already using for outreach. Even though QR codes are becoming commonplace, though, it’s probably not yet time to rely on them completely as a feedback mechanism.

Have you used QR codes with success in your public engagement? Let us know in the comments!












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