February 23, 2015 Last Updated 8:22 am

Carmaker BMW experiments with NFC chips in print mags, but don’t expect it to be ‘the next big thing’

Guest columnist Esther Kezia Harding, digital editor at Page Lizard, looks at the latest technology for print magazines to see if it may be a game changer

The car manufacturer BMW has recently announced a new partnership with tech start-up Tamoco to add NFC chips to their print magazine adverts. This would allow the reader to tap their phones and instantly download the app for BMW’s new electric car range.

The technology works on the same principles as contactless payment, and integrating this into the printed page has been hailed as the ‘next big thing’ in print advertising. But are NFC chips all they’re cracked up to be?

This technology has existed for a while and was first integrated into a national ‘smartposter’ campaign by restaurant chain EAT in 2012.

Since then, it hasn’t exactly been a game-changer, with only occasional usage in print advertising. So I was surprised to find that this is BMW’s answer to their statement that ‘Print is not dead. It just needs to adapt to survive’¹.

Print is far from dead, but if the NFC chip is the calibre of lifebelt being thrown to it, the industry really is in trouble. Perhaps this is too harsh a judgement on what would have been a fantastic idea five or six years ago. But hear me out.

BMW-QRGambling with chips
It makes sense to start with the cost aspect. Only massive companies that are worth billions would be able to afford a campaign like this. Not only do the chips have to be manufactured and calibrated, but the company must then do a deal with the publishers and printers to physically insert them into the magazine. For this reason alone, NFC chip advertising will never be more than an expensive gimmick used exclusively by big names.

In the hypothetical scenario that NFC-chipped adverts exploded in popularity, the way they interact with devices would mean only one (or two at a push) could feature per magazine. At the moment, interaction with the advert is customer-led, but at what point would it make more commercial sense to remove the controls? The advert could download the app to nearby mobile devices whether they actively choose to engage or not.

QR codes were inevitably going to be mentioned at some point in this debate. Although I’m not a strong advocate of them (all the app downloading and faffing about with scanning…), they are nonetheless free, and very common. The biggest problem with QR codes is that they’re not being used creatively, but that’s a discussion for another time. The average magazine advertiser will continue to choose QR over NFC purely for the cost-effectiveness.

Now for a little anecdotal evidence to throw in the mix. On the daily train commute back home one evening, there was a woman who had spotted an NFC chip advert by the doors. She gently held her phone to the advert, but nothing happened. She tried a few more times, holding and pressing the phone over the indicated spot, but with no luck. Determined not to stop for fear of looking more foolish, she continued to press her phone to the advert until the train pulled up at the next stop ten minutes later.

The promised app and offer was nowhere to be seen. Yes, technology like this can be temperamental, but broken QR codes are a much cheaper issue than broken NFC chips!

It may also surprise avid fans of the BMW advert that this isn’t actually the first time chips have been used in a print magazine. They were trialled (to much online trumpeting) by Lexus in Wired Magazine in April 2012. The concept was described as ‘cutting edge’, but it is very difficult to find any statistics or case studies of how successful the campaign was. Perhaps the lack of chips in anything since speaks for itself.

Not all doom and gloom
Like good fish and chips wrapped in old newspaper, there is actually a fantastic concept that shines through old news. “Customers interacting with the print ad are directed to the most relevant content based on which operating system they use or how often they have tapped the ad previously” explained Tamoco² in a press release with BMW. This advert isn’t simply targeted, but responsive as well.

Now that is something to get excited about. To come back to an advert in a magazine only to find it has adapted to my previous interaction creates a reason for me to re-engage. It’s the next level of smart advertising. We’ll be watching the development of this very closely in the coming year.

So no, NFC chips in magazines will not be the ‘next big thing’. It is less the concept of them that is objectionable, but how they are being packaged as a brilliant new idea. It is vital that both the print and digital publishing industries celebrate innovation that will bring tangible benefits, rather than short-lived gimmicks that serve as an expensive step backwards.

¹ Source: Pocket-lint

² Source: Printmonthly.com


E.K. Harding is a Digital Editor at Page Lizard, a digital publishing company specialising in multi-platform and responsive HTML content. She regularly blogs on subjects covering digital publishing, education and design.

  • John Wilpers 3 years ago

    I agree with the author completely in terms of cost and the position that NFC chips won’t go anywhere until they become less expensive to produce and insert into print magazines.

    However, if that happens, there is at least one case of a terrific application of NFC chips that served the purposes of the magazine and its readers: Billboard Brazil inserted NFC chips in the cover of the magazine back in 2013 enabling readers to listen to and download songs from a big concert covered in the magazine. This video will show you the delighted reactions of young Brazilians (an attractive market) to the feature. (http://youtu.be/BBhNadcL4B0)

    Again, though, unless and until the costs come down, it’s out of reach of most publishers.

    John