Commentary

Tapping Into The Fun Side Of NFC

Apple Pay is one of those mildly magical technologies that loses its luster quickly for me. I have been using it over the past month regularly at Panera, Whole Foods and Walgreens without muss or fuss or added value either. In many cases I revert to my usual credit card swiping behavior because in that millisecond when one chooses among payment options at checkout, Apple Pay does not stand out as any more convenient or robust than the credit card that is one pocket over in my pants. They both require pretty much the same amount of movement. Until Apple Pay is more tightly woven into loyalty programs, incentives, personal finance analytics or other such things, it is just a way to show off your iPhone 6.

And worse, there is nothing especially fun about Apple Pay.

But the underlying NFC technology that empowers the tap-to-pay activity can be much more fun than just draining your bank account.

One of the ancillary effects of Apple’s inclusion of NFC technology at last in an iPhone is that it raises the profile of tapping as a behavior, says Andrew Davis, COO and co-founder of Tapit, a mobile marketing company that specializes in mobile activations using NFC, Bluetooth LE and QR. “They are educating the mass market to understand they can tap their phone and things will happen,” he says. Although Apple is not yet letting third parties access the NFC embedded in the iPhone 6 models, Davis and most observers fully expect Apple to pen this up over time. And Davis says Apple phones are the only ones among the 639 million that are NFC-enabled that have not opened up their chips to third parties. An ABI Research projection sees NFC phones topping 1 billion next year and reaching 3.4 billion in 2019. In North America alone there are about 113 million NFC-enabled phones with over 346 million projected for 2019.

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The new support for NFC from Apple and its proliferation among other handsets have encouraged the Australia-based Tapit to open a New York office. The company has been working with the likes of Google, Samsung, Nestle and Microsoft on activation ad campaigns. They papered transit kiosks, buses and trains with tappable ads for Google Music so riders and waiters had instant access to music when they most wanted it. For Samsung, on-shelf retail cards delivered rich product specs and features. At Woolworths in Australia, shelves delivered recipes related to Nestle products.

“Since 2011 we have gotten traction with big multinational brands and built up a nice body of work,” he says. “So rather than work with the subsidiaries of these multinationals we thought this is the perfect time to start working with these brands on a much larger scale in the U.S., market.” Tapit already executed an NFC-powered campaign for Google Movies, again using transit locations as the delivery vehicle. The not-so-secret secret of mobile activation of any kind is value exchange. As Davis puts it, the degree of difficulty a consumer must go through to retrieve the experience must be proportional to the value delivered.    

For marketing and media the advantages of NFC as a triggering device are clear. Unlike QR codes, which require multi-step processes -- or even beacons, which require an app launch -- NFC activation is always on, passive and energy-efficient. It in effect mimics the act of clicking, but in this case on an animate object that delivers back digital content.

Davis argues that these contactless solutions not only make objects interactive, but essentially turn a brand’s physical assets (stores, vending machines, posters) into a digital network that also delivers data back to the brand. “Each time the consumer interacts with the touchpoint, the platform collects data and analytics on behaviors we don’t get anywhere else,” he says. Privacy protection and security ensure that personally identifiable data is not exchanged, but these activations deliver intelligence about physical location and how people are interacting with assets. “They could start to analyze which assets were generating what interactions based on a lot of variables like time of day, make and model of phone and how many times someone had an interaction with the asset. It is like monitoring online behavior but in a physical context.”

As Davis admits, any kind of proximity marketing or contactless system only scales when behaviors shift. Banks and payment systems will be the leading edge of change, as they educate people on the hidden capacity of their phones to communicate quickly with a tap on certain objects. Apple Pay accelerates all of that, one would expect. Of course the same experiential choke point that strangled QR codes -- lack of content quality -- will also put a hold on contactless activations.

Personally, I have always been a big believer in the prospects for making handsets the real bridge between real and digital realms. At the first OMMA Mobile show back in 2007, I included a panel called “A Clickable World” on the concept of activating places, objects, and assets with the phone. The idea of a physical world being given a digital augmentation layer with the handset as mouse, has always been compelling to me. NFC comes closest technologically to that dream, but it has to work in the backdraft of so many bad mobile activation experiences that preceded it. Getting some brand’s TV ad on a cell phone is not a “value add” by any reasonable measure, except perhaps in the minds of delusional marketers who think people love their brands.

Who knows how much damage poor QR code campaigns did to the future of mobile activations? Lowering the bar on interactivity will certainly reduce friction and encourage even more interactivity, or at least among consumers who were jaded by previous experience. In the end it is up to the industry to ensure that truly worthwhile content travels through this channel so that it becomes a flow worth tapping into. 

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