As regular readers of NFC.Today will know, there’s a lot of different uses for NFC Tags. In many cases, tags are deployed with a link to a website or webpage and it doesn’t need to change. For many marketing campaigns this can be because the tags aren’t expected to be ‘in the field’ for that long. Maybe the campaign only runs for a few months and the tags can be encoded to link to a promotional page. In other instances, maybe the tag is encoded to link through to an instruction manual for a product and while the tags might be expected to be scanned for many years, the content will stay the same.
However, there’s also a large number of use cases where the data behind the tag will need to change. This might be because the tag is connected to an asset and the asset details will need updating. Or it’s a marketing or informational tag where the content needs to be regularly refreshed or updated. In these instances, the tag is likely to be linked to software which can then modify the end data. This is called tag management software.
The golden rule.. tags are ID’s, not data
NFC.Today say this in every other article but we’ll say it again here for good measure. Never use NFC tags to store data about something. You’ll eventually run out of memory, controlling access to the tag will be a pain and once the tags are in the field you’ll not be able to change the data without physical access. It’s not what NFC tags are about.
The best (and in our opinion, the only) way to use NFC tags is that they are an ID. A link to a data source on the internet or in the parlance of our times, ‘in the cloud’. This means that you can use cheaper small memory NFC tags, you can lock the tags so the data never changes, there’s less risk of data getting into the wrong hands and you can update the data behind the tag whenever and as often as you like. The only case where this rule can be broken, and we’ll now call it a rule, is when you think you may need to scan the tags without internet access.
Basic tag management principles
Tag management software varies almost as much as the projects that use NFC tags. There’s healthcare systems, round management systems (for example security guards), marketing platforms and so on. There’s even tag management software so you can update the details of your pet when you hang an NFC tag to their collar.
Here at NFC.Today we are a methodical bunch so we like putting things into categories. And we’ll do this by splitting tag management software into two : App systems and Web systems.
App tag management systems
Now most tag management systems using an App are not solely based around the App. The point here is that they generally require an App to be used at the front end while a back end web based system manages the whole system. These management systems tend to be closed loop which means that the person scanning the tags is known and will have previously downloaded an App. A good example of this is healthcare round management.
There are a large number of companies on the market doing this and as NFC.Today is a global website, it would be difficult to start naming them. However, they generally have a web based management system which may for example log all the tags and where they are – maybe in residential houses. Then healthcare professionals who will travel round visiting those houses can scan the tags with the App and update information about patient. It’s quick, easy and saves a huge amount of paperwork.
The NFC tags are being used in the correct way. They are simply acting as an ID linking the App with data somewhere being a secure website. The healthcare professional must have the App to access the data and modify any details behind it.
Now, in the instance described above, you could argue that there’s not actually any need for the App. In reality, a secure section of a website and scan of the tag linking to a particular patient page would work just as well. However, in reality the App tends to do much more. It can act as a GPS system to make sure the tag is in the right place when scanned. It can act as a mechanism to avoid cache scanning where a previous link is accidentally accessed without the tag actually being scanned (although this can be avoided now with the latest authentication NFC tags of course).
Web based NFC tag management systems
This second type of system doesn’t require an App and works solely from a web based control panel. These systems are typically used for marketing or identification purposes. The principle is simply that instead of the tag being encoded directly with the target web page, it’s encoded with a unique web address within the tag management system. When the tag is scanned, the user hits the tag management system and is instantly redirected to the target webpage. The benefit is that while the data on the tag doesn’t change, the target website can be modified at any point as often as required via the tag management system.
Why is this important ? Because in many instances the tags can’t be modified once they are in place. Take an instance where a tag might be added to a handbag. That handbag, once sold, will contain that NFC tag for many years. Any web link encoded on that tag will need to remain the same for as long as that tag might be scanned. That’s tricky. So using a tag management system means that at any point in the future the tag can now redirect through to a different location and stay valid.
Why you should be careful with tag management
One of the main problems with tag management is that while the benefit of using a tag management in, say the handbag, is that the destination web address can be updated at any time, the link from the tag to the tag management system itself stays the same. Which means that if your business uses a third party tag management system and start to deploy the tags, then you need the confidence that those tags will still link to an active tag management system for many years to come. If the tag management system stops working, then all your tags will also stop working – or worse – start to link to something else. To make this clear, once your tags are encoded and locked (and you will need to lock them if they are going out somewhere public), you will not be able to change where they link to. And that’s of course if you can still actually physically access them, which in the case of clothing for example, is not likely.
This isn’t going to be a problem if you encode and lock your NFC tag to your company website as it’s always going to link to your company website. But then, you’ll not have tag management.
The solution here is threefold (yes we are putting things in silos again).
1. Run your own system
Run your own tag management system by setting up a system of redirects within your own website. Technically, this isn’t difficult to do for a techie but developing a full system where anyone authorised can change the links is not going to be much fun.
2. Use a good company
Make sure you use a good tag management company. Speak to them before signing up and check that they know what they are doing. Some guy running some software out of a bedroom might work out fine. But it might not and by the time you find out, your tags might be all over the place.
3. Use an API management system
There are some systems on the market that work as a hybrid of running your own system and third party control. There are two ways this can work. The first is that the NFC tags are encoded to a page on your company website rather than the tag management website. However, the page on your company website does an API call (website to website) behind the scenes to ask the tag management software what to do. The tag management software responds and the page on your website does the ‘redirect’. It means that the tags are linked to your company website but if the tag management system goes down, then you still have the ability to recover the tags as they will always still link to your web page.
The second way is that you use a tag management company that supports subdomains. This means that you setup a subdomain on your main website domain and that links to the tag management system and is encoded on the tags. For example, you might setup up www.nfc.today to link to your tag management server where nfc.today is your main website. (Clearly, you would probably choose something other than ‘www’, perhaps ‘tags’) This would again mean that the tags are encoded with your company website and if the tag management system stops working, you can still regain control. Technically more tricky and many companies are nervous because it means handing over control of a ‘section’ of their website to a third party company – which can have a knock on effect on all sorts of things such as SEO and so on. The API option doesn’t tend to have that kind of level of responsibility.
NFC & QR Code management solutions
One thing to consider is whether or not you will need to also deploy QR Codes alongside NFC tags or perhaps instead of NFC in some cases. On the face of it, NFC Tag management and QR Code management seem quite similar and in many cases, in terms of the interface, they are. However, logistically and in terms of deployment they are often quite different. In many cases, the QR code will either need to be generated as an image/vector to be supplied to a print company or the QR link generated and sent. One of the challenges here is that in some cases, you will need the QR Code and NFC tag link to be different (for tracking purposes) but actually be deployed together. Logistically this can be tricky and it’s important that if you are going down that route that you consider not just the software but the whole end to end process of printing the QR Codes and including the NFC tags. It’s rarely as simple as it first seems !
Tag management and landing pages
Many NFC tag management systems also include some kind of landing page. Apart from the notes above on being careful to link a long term deployment tag to a third party system, they can be a quick and easy way to get your NFC tag campaign up and running. Many of them provide an easy way to provide product data and will integrate with the tag management system to allow customised content and other interactive data.
Tag management and authentication
If you are planing now or might be considering in the future to use NFC tags for authentication as well as identification then there’s a growing number of tag management options for that as well.
Authentication can make tag deployment substantially more complicated but a good system will ease the deployment. NFC.Today would make the point that using NFC Tags for end user (consumer) authentication is a new market and both the chips and eco-system is likely to shift over the next few years. We’d suggest considering a system where authentication is an add-on or option on top of identification rather than perhaps a fully embedded system in itself. Bearing in mind our notes above on the risks of using a third party system, using a third party system for authentication increases those risks a little further. That’s not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t. If, for example, you don’t expect your tags to be in the field that long then it might not matter. However, a system which will work with both authentication and without and perhaps a system that can adapt to the change tag authentication landscape would be a more prudent approach.
Tag management stats
This would really only apply to marketing and identification deployments rather than the App based systems. Most App based systems are closed loop and it’s unlikely you’ll start needing a comprehensive breakdown of user scans in the same way.
In any event, NFC.Today aren’t so sure that this is as important as it might seem to start with. On the face of it, tag scan stats are useful. However, it really depends on how complex the system is and whether it will really give you what you need.
Anyone who has used a full featured web stats package such as Google Analytics, will know that nowadays, stats packages are extremely comprehensive. If your tag management software is ultimately giving you a few snippets of data, will it really matter ? In most marketing cases, data is rarely in isolation now and NFC tags will often be part of a more widespread campaign. If the NFC tag is ultimately linking to a webpage via the tag management system, then a deployment of full featured analytics, such as Google Analytics, is likely to be far more comprehensive and wide reaching. In the end, a few pretty graphs of daily tag scans isn’t going to add up to much.
The growing number of NFC tag deployments and the nature of those deployments means that tag management software is going to become more and more important. Choose carefully who you partner with and make sure you consider the full end to end deployment of tags before you start.