NFC in congress registration

NFC (Near Field Communication)

Ever since the introduction of Apple’s new iPhone 6 the already murmuring stream of news items involving NFC or RFID powered innovation in the event industry, has been transformed into a wild river.  Every day you’ll stumble on a dozen reports and press releases of the next event using some NFC enabled tool.  We shouldn’t however forget that – at least for now – Apple’s adoption of NFC is limited to their own payment functionality and is not (yet) opened up to the developer community.  So whichever NFC solution you’ll read about, except if it’s about Apple Pay, has to be limited to Android users, and more specifically those having a relatively new smartphone operating on Android 4.2 and older. At least to have a smooth user experience.  Officially Android has supported NFC development since version 2.3 but the hardware hasn’t been available let’s say until mid 2012.

Nonetheless, I’m a true believer.  Already 63% of mobile phones are Androids and the percentage of Androids running on a version below 4.2 is dropping really fast.  Especially in the category of business users.  On top, I believe Apple’s current policy on banning developers from their NFC implementation will not last very long.  Soon we will see them make the same move as with the fingerprint sensor on the old iPhone 5 and release and SDK for their NFC chip.  Meaning the potential of NFC will become available to a much wider user group, definitely considering that Apple fans tend to upgrade to new hardware and versions of iOS at a much higher pace.  Between end of January and end of March 2014 the number of users on iOS 7, yes seven – released on 6 months before, has increased from 80 to 85%.  At the last Worldwide Developers Conference, Tim Cook announced an installation grade of 89% for all active iOS devices.  And the adoption of the next release, iOS8, is breaking all records, with a 46% installation rate, only 5 days after the release on September 17, 2014.

And so it came about, that during the last 2 weeks, I set up and presented a prototype of NFC running fast-track registration for a congress organizer.

Fast-lane registrationnfc_tags_LinkedIn

In short, the basic idea was to use a couple of NFC stickers, attached to whatever surface available – a counter, a wall – or another (mobile) device, and have attendees exchange personal identification data over NFC connection.  I programmed two different NFC stickers, one with a dedicated LinkedIn profile for the event and one to send out a url link to the attendee’s device, directing the attendee to a dedicated registration webpage.  The goal being to be able to measure the effectiveness and speed of the LinkedIn-based solution.  That one was the “fast-lane”.  All an attendee had to do was wipe his phone over the NFC sticker and his or her LinkedIn-profile was automatically added as a contact to the LinkedIn account of the event.  As simple as that.

Did it work ?  In the prototype it did very well.  Using 5 different phone brands and 3 versions of Android (4.2, 4.3 and 4.4) we tested and tested.  The results were very satisfying : zero failed exchanges and under 1 second succesful connections.  Even after practically destroying one sticker by wearing it down and tearing it almost in two, still produced the lovely sounding bling to indicate a succesful exchange.

No downsides then ?  Well, to be fair, no !   At least not from the technolog and practicality point of view.  This is beyond a doubt a viable way of handling registration.  Of course it still needs to be tested in a real environment.  But the use case has been confirmed.

So what’s keeping us from actually implementing it ?

The first hurdle to take is – to the surprise possibly of many readers that I put this one first – the willingness of organizers to acknowledge that having a person’s name and valid e-mail address (as in a LinkedIn profile) is enough data to establish and develop a long lasting, meaningful, engaged and revenue-generating relationship.  Much more so than asking to fill out a lengthy registration form.  The reason why is because you deliver the value and user experience many business men and women are looking for in a registration process : ease and speed.  And in the case of a LinkedIn profile exchange, you as an organizer get much more information that you can use.  Think about the easy access to data of colleagues, peers and twins.  A complete overview of the person’s curriculum, other activities that he/she is engaged in, interests, endorsements,…   Oh and by the way, all the other registered contacts also get to see who’s registered, so expect a lot more interaction going on at your event.  Plus you can post updates on your event live to this entire audience.

Second hurdle of course is the availability of NFC enabled smartphones.  At least for now.  I’m pretty confident that this hurdle will resolve itself very fast, especially when, as mentioned before, Apple’s smartphone truly get’s into the game.

The third hurdle, people’s unease with this type of registration and the idea of using your phone to get access to an event, will dissolve as quickly as the hardware issue.  Once the technology becomes wider available, the use of a phone to make transactions will become very common and even demanded by your audience.

The last hurdle is that every attendee’s phone using the NFC solution has to be online.  And yes, while in some event locations you’ll still search vainly for a free Wifi, that number is rapidly dropping and most smartphone business users hava an active, always-on 3G/4G data subscription.

Is the method described and used in this prototype the ultimate way to do fast-lane registration ?  Probably not, there’s hundreds of ways of doing that, but it’s a viable effort with enough promising test results to develop it further.  Moreover, NFC’s hype can be a catalyst for a wave of innovation in the ever traditional trade show and congress industry.

Are you thinking about using NFC or RFID solutions in your next event, or did you already experiment yourself ?  Just post a remark to share your thoughts.