Could NFC make the business card really useful?


I have a thing about business cards. These little rectangular pieces of stiff paper or card seem to me to have outlived their analogue usefulness in today’s digital world.

What are you supposed to do with one when someone gives you theirs? You somehow have to get their contact info from the card and into your contacts list in Outlook or Evernote or whatever tool you use. That usually means typing it in unless you’re an fan of OCR software (and who regularly uses that for something like this?), or take a photo of it, post it somewhere and hope an app will be able to accurately extract the useful data from your image.

There was the fad recently of touching smartphones together so an app like Bump would transfer contact info that way. I don’t know anyone who does that today.

In 2009, I got excited about the potential of QR codes on business cards as one way of making the paper card useful in that it would be easy to get someone’s contact info from the card and into your digital domain relatively easily. And no typing!

I still think the QR code is a useful technology for this purpose, and continue to use one on my business cards.

Yet they still require you to go through some hurdles just to make the information on that bit of paper come to life digitally. So you have to load up a barcode scanner on your smartphone or other suitable mobile device (you did install one, right?). You have to hold the card in one hand or put it down somewhere, get the barcode app to scan it, open up the result in your browser, and then what?

Much depends on what the QR code creator has done with the code. Maybe it gives you something useful, eg, contact info in a format your contact software can directly use. Perhaps a page on a website that has that plus useful links, other content, etc.

But here’s something new that could be a better solution (with a huge caveat, though: more on that in a minute) – business cards embedded with an NFC chip where you wave your NFC -enabled card close to a suitable mobile device  – you don’t have the touch the device – to transfer information.

According to its Wikipedia entry, ‘NFC’ stands for near-field communication:

[NFC] is a set of standards for smartphones and similar devices to establish radio communication with each other by touching them together or bringing them into close proximity, usually no more than a few centimetres. Present and anticipated applications include contactless transactions, data exchange, and simplified setup of more complex communications such as Wi-Fi. […]

So a lot of potential to come. When? Well, according to Gartner in their latest hype cycle for emerging technologies, NFC is presently on the downslope from the peak of inflated expectations towards the trough of disillusionment. Gartner thinks it will be 2-5 years before NFC reaches its plateau of productivity.

Still plenty of time to experiment, then, and see what’s possible with things like the business card – something the innovative card-printing firm MOO is doing with their experimental NFC Business Card:

When you say your first hello and present your business card, you’re offering up a little piece of yourself – but with an NFC card it can be a great big piece.

Embedded in the card is a tiny microchip. When it’s touched to a smartphone, the chip asks the phone to do something. Something you’ve told it to. Perhaps download your portfolio, play music or video, load web pages, maps or apps, save your contact details – the possibilities are endless.

See what MOO have in mind in this brief video:

NFC Business Cards from MOO from MOO.COM on Vimeo.

So the technology is present and the ability and intent to use it for a purpose such as a business card is clear. What’s not here yet is device ubiquity, ie, devices that have NFC chips built in. There are not enough devices yet.

But that’s the picture today. It will change as newer devices come to market with all the required bells and whistles and more people get such devices, and those devices enable you to do interesting, useful and productive things better, more securely and/or more easily than you can now.

I think big drivers behind the introduction of such technologies into the marketplace will be things like contactless payment systems and mobile payment.

QR codes face similar hurdles, ie, it needs to be easier and simpler for smartphone users to make use of them (and for code creators to create imaginative experiences when someone scans a code). That could be resolved by having the required barcode scanning software built-in to smartphones, where scanning a QR code means simply pointing your device’s camera at one and hey presto!

Lots of innovation coming. In the meantime, think of how to make your analogue business cards deliver more use to those you give them to.

(Via GigaOm.)

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On target with QR codes

targetappA technology that’s often criticized as being in a cul-de-sac is QR codes, those little square images that you scan with an app on your smartphone to perform some kind of action.

It’s that ‘action’ that’s the focus of criticism as some who have experimented with this nifty tech really have lacked imagination in its use and, thus, received large yawns from everyone not only consumers.

However, great examples of imagination in action are there, which clearly suggest that the tech can have a future if you offer your target something compelling (isn’t it another example of ‘content is king’?).

Speaking of target, here’s an example of imagination, driven by competitive pressure notably from Amazon. US retailer Target will debut QR codes in stores in the coming American holiday season for its twenty most popular toys.

As TechCrunch reports, shoppers can use the Target mobile app to scan toys’ QR codes which you can then buy – there and then on your phone while you’re in the store – and have your purchases shipped free to an address in the US.

[…] The retailer says that this feature can be particularly useful when a particular toy is sold out in the store. The app would allow a purchaser to just find the item online, and allows Target to keep the sale. The feature will roll out on October 14.

Target is also debuting an online and mobile toy catalog [that] includes coupons that can be used on a guest’s total purchase. Shoppers can also create a digital Wish List that is shareable via email.

It’s a good example of a retailer knowing how his competitive landscape is evolving, understanding his customers and what they might find appealing, and evolving his offering to meet a perceived consumer need.

It’s offering people another way to get at your content, to complement all the other ways they can: it will appeal to some consumers but not to others.

Imaginative targeting.

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QR codes at heart of lost-and-found service


A topic I’ve written about frequently here is QR codes, those square, random-looking black-and-white images that are meaningless to the eye but content-rich to a cameraphone and some barcode-scanning software.

These little barcodes are popping up everywhere these days, and how they’re being used by marketers attracts praise and derision in almost equal measure.

Given my glass-half-full approach to such matters, I love discovering imaginative uses of these powerful little tools.And here’s an interesting one – QR codes as an integral element of a new service describing itself as “the next generation global lost-and-found service.”

Finnish/US startup Belongs launched its service in beta last month. What it does is simple as its launch announcement says:

[…] Order free tag stickers from the website (, claim them online and stick them to your valuables. When your item gets lost, the finder can scan the tag’s QR code with their smartphone or access the web address on the tag. The owner is automatically notified, and anonymous chat is established between the two parties to arrange the return of the lost item. To further incentivize the returning of valuables, Belongs supports setting rewards for found items through PayPal, and the Belongs technology will streamline the transfer of the reward from owner to finder.

The service is free for individuals – there is a paid service for businesses – so I signed up and ordered some free tag stickers, which arrived in the post from the US a few days ago.

Setting up an item with a tag and sticker is simplicity itself. What you do is use one of the QR code stickers for a valuable (a netbook computer, for instance), go to the Belongs website via your computer or mobile device and describe that item in your Belongs account, and stick the rectangular sticker to the item. The stickers are quite small, about one inch by half an inch (about 25mm x 13mm).

The image at top shows one I did, stuck to a netbook just beneath the sticker with the Windows product information. If you scan the QR code – a unique one for each of your valuables – with your smartphone or go to the web address shown on the sticker, you’ll get a description page about the valuable with information on what to do next.

You can offer a reward if your item does get lost and someone finds it and makes contact with Belongs via the QR code sticker, which I did; setting that up via PayPal is also a simple procedure.

So you have your stuff tagged and stickered and you venture out on your travels with confidence! Belongs says its job is to “encourage good deeds” where basic honesty will prevail when someone finds your valuable that you’ve lost.

They describe such altruism thus:

    • Enabling you to tag your items with our high quality personalized tag stickers
    • Letting you offer a reward for your item
    • Making it possible for finders to receive a reward for the good deed
    • Offering full anonymity for everybody
    • Offering our services internationally and multilingually
    • Making it as easy and trustworthy as possible
    • Giving tags for free for the people

I’d like to think the same although I also have a pragmatic view where if you do lose your netbook, iPhone, iPad, camera or whatever it might be, file an insurance claim rather than only wait for a Good Samaritan to get in touch with Belongs.

I’ve been wondering where the monetization for Belongs lies, and clearly that must be primarily in the paid service for businesses that enters into the realm of enterprise asset management. For individuals and small businesses, the free service would be fine (and you can donate to Belongs if you wish to, which I did).

Time will tell how successful Belongs will be (and how honest people are), But I love the idea and imagination behind the use of QR codes in this way.

The future for QR codes can be rosy


Whenever I read reports that assess how poorly QR codes and other barcodes are doing, and the unhappy outlook for their future, I’m always reminded of Hugh McLeod’s classic cartoon from 2007 you see here.

A new report from eMarketer says that QR codes aren’t giving consumers what they want.

[…] “What consumers want from their 2-D barcode experience and what brands deliver are typically at odds,” said eMarketer. “Consumers want deals and discounts. Brands want to deliver information.”

[…] Poorly aligned consumer-brand expectations for mobile barcode-linked content and inadequate user experiences are driving consumers away from mobile barcode use. “Until marketers move beyond the practice of pushing content to consumers via mobile barcodes, and instead give consumers what they want … many consumers will continue to consider their first mobile barcode experience their last,” said eMarketer.

This hits the nail right on the head. I would agree that many uses of such barcodes really do lack imagination. It’s becoming common to see these images on all sorts of brand packaging, magazine ads and more, yet offer little compulsion to do anything especially when it’s still far from easy for most people to make use of this relatively-simple technology.

When you see it done well, though, it’s something to be excited about when you think what some imagination can do.

What needs to happen is that, unlike at present, barcode-scanning software should come built-in with your smartphone. All you’d have to do is point your device’s camera at a QR code or other barcode for it to do its thing.

No loading up, clicking, tapping or what-have-you.

A really good product that I use is Barcode Scanner, a free app for Android that does exactly what it says – scans barcodes including QR codes. Its simplicity is key: once you load it, you point your device and it does its thing.

Another good example is Amazon’s mobile app for Android – it includes a barcode scanner so you can scan a product in a store, for example, and the app looks it up in Amazon’s inventory and presents it to you on your smartphone. Handy when you’re out comparison-shopping.

Until that day arrives, though, marketers can help themselves in three simple ways:

  1. Understand what consumers want. (I’d argue that consumers don’t always or even necessarily want discounts – what they really want is something compelling.)
  2. Offer consumers a genuinely high expectation of something compelling from your QR code that makes a breeze of the current process of finding some software, installing it on a device and scanning a code.
  3. Help those consumers be delighted with their experience via your QR code by applying your imagination.

Whether the end result is a discount or something really user-compelling, what happens at that point is the make or break for that part of your user/brand engagement.

It’s not what the software does, it’s what the user does.

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QR codes at the heart of Monmouthpedia


An interesting experiment gets its official launch this weekend when Monmouthpedia formally kicks off today.

The Welsh town of Monmouth is the focus of this Wikipedia project that aims to create physical connections between places throughout the town, and events in its history, with respective content on Wikipedia.

According to the description on Wikipedia:

[…] The project aims to cover every single notable place, person, artefact, plant, animal and other things in Monmouth in as many languages as possible, but with a special focus on Welsh. This is a different scale of wiki-project. The project is jointly funded by Monmouthshire County Council and Wikimedia UK. Monmouthshire County Council intend to install free town wide Wi-Fi for the project.

What this means in practice is that when you visit Monmouth – a town with a rich history as this Monmouthpedia infographic illustrates – you’ll encounter visual clues everywhere that let you know that detailed information about the thing on which the clue is attached is available on Wikipedia.

The ways in which the clues will be displayed are many:

    • Larger ceramic or metal plaques for places exposed to the elements for articles specific to Monmouth.
    • Smaller plastic, ceramic or metal plaques for labelling objects non specific to Monmouth, e.g. for use in the Flora and Fauna guide.
    • Labels for use inside buildings, e.g. for objects in museums.
    • Glass stickers in the windows of shops to give information on their professions.
    • In addition there will be information posters, signs, notice boards and leaflets to help people contribute and stay informed.

And the visual clues themselves? QR codes.


If you have a smartphone and a QR code-scanning app (for Android smartphones, a good one is Barcode Scanner), you just scan the code and the relevant Wikipedia page will open on your device. As free wifi-fi will blanket Monmouth, no worries about connectivity costs.

What’s especially clever is that the page you get on your mobile device can be in any one of about 25 languages. Here’s how that works:

When a user scans a QRpedia QR code on their mobile device, the device decodes the QR code into a Uniform Resource Locator (URL) using the domain name “” and whose path (final part) is the title of a Wikipedia article, and sends a request for the article specified in the URL to the QRpedia web server. It also transmits the language setting of the device.

The QRpedia server then uses Wikipedia’s API to determine whether there is a version of the specified Wikipedia article in the language used by the device, and if so, returns it in a mobile-friendly format. If there is no version of the article available in the preferred language, then the QRpedia server offers a choice of the available languages, or a Google translation.

In this way, one QRcode can deliver the same article in many languages, even when the museum is unable to make its own translations. QRpedia also records usage statistics.

That’s what I call imagination.

If you’re interested in how this grand experiment will develop – Monmouth has been dubbed “The world’s first Wikipedia town” – keep an eye on the website and the blog. You can also connect on Twitter: @MonmouthpediA. Follow the hashtag #MonmouthpediA.

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A little imagination is key to success with QR codes

heinzqrcode“QR codes are a waste of time” is a phrase I hear often. While they are becoming more of a feature in brand marketing campaigns, I would agree with critics that how they’re included too often adds little to a campaign.

I think it’s not so much that the codes themselves are a waste of time – that’s like saying Twitter is a waste of time because someone’s tweets aren’t very interesting –  it’s more how people employ them.

For instance, it seems to me that linking your QR code to a website that’s suited to desktop use (ie, a large screen), has lots of graphics, Flash movies, etc, really is pointless and does absolutely nothing for your campaign. Remember, people will be scanning the codes on mobile devices, not desktop or other big-screen computers, and expecting something of value when they get the result from scanning the code.

Then there are poorly thought-out interaction ideas. I’m beginning to lose count of how many vans and other small commercial vehicles I see on the roads with QR codes stuck on the side or the back. Especially terrific when you’re stuck in the traffic jam approaching the Hammersmith flyover :)

Check these examples of how not to use QR codes posted earlier this year by Econsultancy (my favourite: the QR code on the side of a building that looks to be at least 6 metres off the ground…).

If the end result of the journey from the code is such a poor (or even missed) experience, you’re more likely to switch off your consumer entirely.

So when QR codes play an imaginative role in marketing that enables a consumer to get to the pot of gold that you want him or her to, it’s good to see. And there are some good examples that balance the disasters as Econsultancy highlights in another post a few days ago describing six great examples of QR code uses that illustrate what you can do if you have some imagination (and an effective campaign plan).

In each of the six examples – from German retailer, US food company HJ Heinz, South Korean retailer Emart, US chemical firm Dow Chemical, Transport for London, and French cosmetics firm L’Oréal – Econsultancy concisely describes the QR code use and then includes some credible analysis and metrics on the results.

While all of them are good examples, one in particular stands out to me because it is so imaginative – Emart’s use of light and shadow at a specific time of day to activate a QR code to support its Sunny Sale campaign.

(If you don’t see the video embedded above, watch it at YouTube.)

I saw that friend Michael Netzley in Singapore posted the video, saying that it’s “maybe the smartest use of a QR code I have ever seen.” You can also hear his views about it in episode 650 of the FIR podcast when it’s published on May 7 (this is the weekly business podcast I co-host with Shel Holtz and for which Michael is a regular contributor).

Imagination – it’s a great commodity especially when there’s a lot of it.

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