What is NFC and how can you use NFC Tags for marketing purposes? NFC stands for Near Field Communications and they have much in common with QR Codes. They are a conduit to connect the physical and digital worlds. They also share many of the same best practices we established in the article “QR Codes Best Practices – 10 rules for marketing professionals”. Although they have similarities they are very different in terms of the technology behind them, the implementation, how and where they are used, the cost, and other important factors we will explore below.

What is NFC? The tech section

NFC Tags for Marketing - Photo Credit to Timo Arnall - http://www.flickr.com/photos/timo/3706952723/sizes/n/in/photostream/

NFC Tag – Chip and antenna in a sticker

NFC is a wireless communication option that many smartphones have. In that narrow aspect, NFC is similar to your Wi-Fi or Bluetooth phone capabilities. NFC allows two devices to communicate with each other when they are very close or “tap” each other. That communication can also be established between your smartphone and a small unpowered chip called a “tag”.
NFC tags are very similar to those RFID tags you see attached to products at many retail stores. For this purpose you can think of a NFC Tag as an RFID tag that can only be read from a very short distance, a few inches.
What type of information can be stored in a NFC Tag? This includes a URL, a phone number, contact information, a SMS, an app, and others. The most important feature to emphasize at this point is that there is no need to install or open any app to trigger those actions. Just tap the tag.

Take away

NFC Tags for marketing - grabbing content from a book

Grabbing content from NFC tag in a book

To Tap: Just touch or bring your NFC enabled smartphone close to another NFC enabled phone, NFC reader, or NFC Tag to exchange information.
NFC Tag: A NFC Tag is a small chip usually embedded in a sticker that can be programmed to hold information and can be read with your smartphone. You can easily write information into NFC tags using your smartphone.
NFC Tags for marketing bottom line: When a NFC tag has stored information, a NFC enabled smartphone can tap that tag to trigger an action without any specific app installed or opened.

What are some differentiating characteristics of QR Codes and NFC Tags for marketing purposes?

When considering using QR Codes or NFC Tags for marketing purposes keep in mind the following:

  1. You must install and open an App to read QR Codes. NFC Tags do not require any app for basic actions. It functions by proximity only. That means a customer will need to complete at least six more steps to read a QR Code than a NFC tag. There are only two steps to read a NFC Tag: turn on the phone and tap the tag.
  2. Each NFC Tag have a related cost. You have to buy the tags and there is a cost associated to program them. NFC Tag prices start at a few cents in big volumes. NFC Tag prices start at a few cents for big volumes. For small quantities you will probably pay close to one dollar per tag. On the other hand, QR Codes can be printed without any recurring expenses. In this context, using a QR Code makes more sense than using a NFC tag on, for example, a bottle of coke.
  3. As QR Codes need to be scanned with your phone’s camera, the environmental factors play an important role i.e. appropriate light, steady place , time to open the app and focus the camera, etc. NFC tags are much faster to read as they do not require any light or stillness. For example, it is easier for a customer to tap a poster in a crowded area than standing at a distance trying to focus the camera to read a QR Code. If you want your customers to check-in with Foursquare, you are better off using a NFC tag. Otherwise the customers need to stand near the door, focus on the QR Code, stop other patrons coming to the same place, and hope that their QR Code reader is appropriate for that QR Code.
  4. Two different types of smartphones dominate the market: Apple iPhone and Android devices. Currently, NFC technology is not available on iPhones. It is important to remember the majority of smartphones in the market today are Android devices. According to a recent comScore report Android ranked as the top smartphone platform in May 2013 with a 52.4%t market share. Apple was ranked second with 39%. While Apple iPhone doesn’t support NFC technology, there are rumors showing NFC technology implemented in iPhone 5s
  5. QR Codes can be placed in anyplace that can be scanned with your phone camera from short or long distances. NFC Tags must be located in places you can reach with your hands. Perhaps that is the point we should focus on now as it coincides directly with the consumer experience.

NFC is a buffet restaurant & QR Codes is a la carte

With this analogy your smartphone is an empty plate and the digital content is food. Loading content on your smartphone, such as opening a website and downloading a coupon, is like putting food on your plate.

NFC is a buffet restaurant

Have you ever eaten in a buffet restaurant? The only way to put something on your plate is by getting in front of a single food tray, putting your plate near the tray, and serving yourself some food. In this case each food tray is like a different NFC Tag and can point to different types of content.
Note two key characteristics: You must be in front of the tray to get the content and the interaction is one on one. There are no intermediaries and therefore it is immediate.

QR Codes function as any other type of restaurant

When you enter a fast-food restaurant, you scan the menu in front of you, order from the cashier, and the food is delivered to your plate. In a different restaurant you can sit at a table, read a menu, order from a waiter and have the food delivered to you. In this analogy the cashier and the waiter are like the QR Code Reader apps. If they are missing you cannot get food. In other words, you must install a QR Code reader app in your phone to be able to access that information.

The big difference

While the final results may be the same, proximity is perhaps the most important conceptual difference between these two tools. In creating that proximity or private space you create a unique opportunity, the customer is there!
In other words, NFC Tags bring the customer to a specific and well defined space. Like the restaurant metaphor, you bring the customer in front of a specific food tray where you can induce a particular action. The fact that NFC tags do not require any app to read them is a huge advantage over QR Codes. Still, if you cannot create a unique customer experience related to that proximity, immediate convenience, or the environment around the customer, you are better off using QR codes.

McDonald’s Happy Table with NFC Tags 

So which technology is better marketing-wise?

The answer is in the question. It is not about technology, it is about marketing. When considering QR Codes or NFC Tags for marketing purposes, here are the questions you need to answer: what is your marketing purpose? What is the customer experience that will augment your business results?
This brings us back to the same conclusion we arrived at during the previous discussion. Despite the order of the words in “mobile marketing”, marketing comes first. In conclusion, start by understanding your marketing needs and engage a marketer that understands the mobile medium. Tap or Scan that!