Humor me for a moment. Imagine going into a clothing store tomorrow. You’re on the hunt for a new pair of jeans. A salesperson comes over as you enter, hands you a shirt and points you to the register for purchasing. Confused and caught off guard, you obediently step into the line before your wits arrive. A glance at the shirt in your hands quickly shows it’s not your size, a color you hate, and you have more than a slight suspicion it’s intended for the opposite gender. And, wait, didn’t you come in to buy pants, anyway?

What a ridiculous scenario, right? (I made it up, so please don’t agree too heartily.) But is it really so farfetched? One of the trickiest parts of our jobs is connecting with consumers. We aren’t always sure of what they want, so we frantically throw something at them and cross our fingers for the best. (If we’re of a surlier sort, we throw products at patrons and cross our arms, daring them to say it isn’t just what they needed and forcing them to purchase as it’s the only option given.) Not only do we have to know what our consumers request, but we also need to engage them. Why? It goes back to avoiding the whole brand-isn’t-listening thing. Humans fancy knowing someone is hearing them. Think about it — every one of us is a consumer, and how frustrating is it when we feel a brand doesn’t understand what we want or need? People aren’t static beings but ever-changing creatures with rather elusive desires. What appeals to buyers today is not what they want tomorrow. How they shop one week is not how they prefer to shop the next.

Getting Information

Think back to days of yore when shoppers spoke to the clerk if they wished for more information on a product. Try that now, and you might be disappointed. Stores don’t expect stockers and salespeople to be beacons of knowledge for every available brand. So what’s a customer to do when he or she needs to connect with a company, especially right then and there in the store? As technology improves, more consumers are turning to those little gateways to the world in their pockets: smartphones. 

I sit down with Michael Manley, senior business development manager, RFID, WS Packaging Group Inc., to discuss what’s going on in technology developments and how progressions like NFC allow a brand to give its audience what it wants.

It’s What’s Inside That Counts

For starters, what is NFC? The industry has certainly been hearing a lot on it recently. You probably have also seen the tap-to-share Samsung commercials or even tried the feature yourself.

“Near-field communications (NFC) is a form of RFID technology,” says Manley. “NFC readers are now coming embedded in smartphones. Soon the technology will be as common as Bluetooth
and Wi-Fi.”

Smartphones — no longer just for hip teens — everyone from grade-schoolers to grandparents seems to have one. (Except for your faithful editor: I’m still waiting for my “basic” phone to die.) Scan any cell phone service providers’ websites, and you’ll see many more pages devoted to smartphone offerings than basic phones. Even now as I sport my LG Versa around, people stop me at tradeshows and dinners, acting as if I’m lugging about one of those extinct bricks of a phone — and I don’t even have the optional keyboard attached! As you can see, the technology game is quickly changing.

Manley backs up these field observations. “Consumers are adopting smartphones rapidly, and the smartphones have ubiquitous data connections to the Internet."

Consumers need information, many consumers have smartphones, and smartphones get you information. Here’s where we throw a wrench into this joyous train of thought.

“Brand owners know consumers use their smartphones for shopping, but brands have struggled to find compelling techniques for engaging consumers with their brand in the physical world,” says Manley.

Add To The List

So, smartphones clear up the issue of getting information, but connecting with customers has still not been resolved. Is all lost? Now, brand owners not only need to figure out customer engagement, but also have to add smartphones into their marketing strategy? Fret not, as the problem is being solved for us: Many smartphones have NFC capabilities, which, according to Manley, packs a one-two punch.

“NFC tags can be embedded in packaging, posters, POP displays or nearly any packaging component. And, when read with a smartphone, engage a consumer instantly.”

“NFC is used widely in Japan, Korea and Europe today,” he continues. “Here in the United States, the more interesting applications have been in print magazines and ‘out of home’ marketing campaigns that leverage the location to drive brand awareness and, being location aware, drive a customer to a nearby store after tapping a tag for a cough drop in a bus shelter. It will be used for sharing any digital form — pictures, movies, coupons and playlists. Even HID Global, the world’s largest security system and lock provider, is making NFC-enabled locks for doors.”

QR Codes Versus NFC

Whatever happened to quick response codes? Though they can’t do everything listed above, don’t people use those to connect with brands?

Yes and no. Manley fills us in. “State-of-the-art today is to use quick response (QR) codes, which are complex (they require a special application for your phone), slow (they require camera setup for point-and-shoot use), unsightly (they can compromise brand graphics), and rarely used more than once."

“On the other hand, NFC is simple (requires no special application), fast (just simply touch/tap and go), and can be integrated into the packaging.”

“NFC reduces the barriers to engagement by orders of magnitude,” Manley continues. “Basically, it’s fun and
easy to use, versus QR codes, which are laborious and typically get used once. There is plenty of research that supports this assertion.”

Esentially, brands can use NFC technology to make
getting information faster and more enjoyable for consumers. Designers like it as well, because NFC won’t bog down graphics.

That’s right, agrees Manley. “No label space is required; it can be hidden in packaging.”

Summing It Up

Let’s take a look at our checklist now. Near-field communications can be used to give your audience information. You can link to a coupon, a demonstration video or a place to join a loyalty program, among other things. That’s your way of getting consumers more information. It also engages the shopper, giving them an interactive experience. Consumers are pleased.

Happy customers mean a happy brand, but is there another way the brand benefits from using NFC? As is turns out, there is another perk, according to Manley.

“Since NFC is often used to drive a consumer to a mobile-optimized website, the same information that can be captured by a website (time/date, browser, operating system, IP address, etc.) is available to the brand owner. The data is yours (brand owner).

And that, friends, brings us back to the beginning: knowing your consumer. The more brand owners understand their audience, the better equipped they’ll be to help them.

I could end there, but I know what you’re thinking: Not everyone has a smartphone, as you, dear editor, just admitted. And if you’ve seen some of the Samsung commercials, specifically the one aiming at Apple, you know not all smartphones have NFC capabilities. You are correct on both accounts.

NFC is a wonderful new tool, but it’s not a magic bullet that will allow everyone to be content and informed. Do listen to this, though.

“There are an estimated 200 million NFC-enabled smartphones today,” says Manley. “This is expected to grow three-fold to 600 million by 2015. Today, every mobile operating system supports NFC, except iOS. Android, which owns 75 percent of the global smartphone market, Windows 8 and Blackberry all support NFC today.  It's widely expected iOS will support NFC in its next release.”

That’s a large market, and many of the consumers brand owners are trying to reach are in it.

“Further,” says Manley, “brand owners are hungry to leverage the smartphones consumers use — in meaningful ways — to create one-to-one relationships and unique experiences. Every brand is struggling to develop a meaningful mobile marketing strategy. NFC should be considered one critical piece of that overall strategy.”

Smartphones aren’t going away, so if brands don’t have a mobile marketing strategy to reach their customers or their strategy doesn’t include NFC, now’s a great time to get started. NFC tags will cost you more than the free QR codes, but the benefits of streamlined use and mining buyer data are strong. You don’t want to be the brand tossing shirts at an audience that needs pants (which is the last time you’ll need to humor me with that example).

Start the Connection

Want to see NFC in action? Watch Manley’s live demo at Manley shows three applications for near-field communications that let brands interact with consumers. These few options are just the starting point of what could be accomplished with the technology.

Now, your brand might be using QR codes right now, and you may be using them to great avail. In actuality, much of the trouble consumers face with QR codes is how we as brands use them (e.g., linking to unhelpful information), not the actual science behind the codes.

If you find you prefer to stick with QR codes for some applications, take a look at the following viewpoints from the technology world to make sure you are using codes in the best ways possible.

Try to avoid the common pitfalls these articles point out so you can continue to help the audience you reach:

QR: Quick Response … or … Quite Reluctant QR Codes Not Giving

Consumers What They Want