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Contactless – Can touch this

I’d like to think I don’t pop into my local M&S to buy overpriced ready-mades too often, but the occasional peak through my fingers at my online banking suggests otherwise. And I think I know why. The contactless payment machines, which this M&S installed some months ago, are not just frictionless; I dare say they’re fun. No PIN, no cash, and if you skip away before it’s even had the chance to spit out your receipt, it’s almost as exciting as stealing. The moment your card gets within a centre metre or two of the machine, the green lights say go, and you’re away. Payment as close to enjoyable as it can get and I don’t think I’m the only one. The woman paying for her latte in Eat, smiling when her contactless payment accepts – seriously, who smiles when they handover £2.50 in cash for yet another coffee? – or the guy in Boots who slowly and awkwardly moving his card towards the new-fangled contactless card machine, “What this? On that?” he asks the assistant. Yes, this on that sir, and chuckle he does when the payment accepts in a flash. Now maybe it is just me who gets satisfaction from witnessing these moments, moments when I start to see technology I’ve read about months or years ago reach ‘real-life’ situations.

In the media world there has been talk of contactless technology for some time. Visions of people touching their smartphones against NFC-enabled posters in order to download something to their phone, whether that be a link or content.

The emergence of contactless card payments on the high-street in 2013 offers an introduction to the behaviour at significant scale and a segue into an era when the mobile phone will surely replace the contactless enabled card as the only object someone needs to complete these ‘transactions’. Sadly (if you like new stuff), despite being technically possible, huge political and regulatory stumbling blocks are very much in the way of a world when the right smartphone is all you need to do everything contactless. In the meantime, brands in 2014 are likely to continue to dabble with NFC technology despite limited, albeit growing, awareness of what it is and how it works. I think the growth of contactless card payments offers much encouragement though, bringing a very similar behaviour to the masses, as well as the chance of lessons to be learned for brands looking to venture into the contactless world.

The first of these is that the technology absolutely has to work seamlessly and probably first time. I think there’s a mighty fine line between a new piece of kit being surprising, amazing, a great invention, or being a useless piece of junk that doesn’t solve something that was fine anyway; that fine line is first and foremost whether it works or not. No excuses, no second chances.

The second thing is that it must be useful. Now this is where some advertisers venturing into the world of contactless so far aren’t quite getting it. Replacing the need to enter my card, PIN, and wait for it to process with a simple, elegant, barely-touching swipe of the card is useful. This is because it’s making something necessary and functional quicker and easier for me, even if in reality it’s only one minute quicker. If you’re asking me to swipe my phone against an ad on a bus stop in return for some content – some content I could just find on the web if I were really that bothered, and I’m probably not – then the ‘value-exchange’ just isn’t there. The technology is just the enabler; it isn’t fun or interesting in its own right. The contactless transaction in M&S is useful, even fun, because of the output – a satisfyingly speedy transaction. So many times with new technology, brands seem to spend 90% of their time and effort thinking about the kit, how it will work and fit into an ideal ‘user journey’ that no real person would actually go on, while only 10% is spent thinking about what the output is for the person who engages. “Oh, how about they touch to download our TV ad?” Or a 10% discount that everyone knows you can just find on Money Saving Expert. Or worse still, a screensaver or ringtone. Yes, this still happens in 2013.

When advertisers get their heads around this value-exchange then the opportunity does really open up. One-off discounts that you genuinely can’t get any other way, exclusive products, or tickets to a gig the brand is sponsoring, are just a few examples of the kind of things that might genuinely pique the interest the person waiting for their bus. It’s a really big ask for somebody to tap their phone on your bus stop ad, for example. They have a million and one other fun things they can be doing on their mobile phone whilst waiting for their bus and touching a poster is a little bit embarrassing, no?

The good news, and final thing I think brands can learn from retailers using contactless, is that if the reward is great enough, overblown fears about security seem to disappear. If a user had the time and inclination to really ponder how it all worked and if it was safe they might get nervous, but they won’t. They’ll try it and if it works and appears slick, they’ll trust it, or at least any security fears will be surpassed by just how damn cool and quick it is. As with most technology, people don’t generally worry too much about how the thing works once they’ve used it and had a great experience. I really hope 2014 is the year when brands start to provide these experiences and tap in (pun intended) to the growing potential of contactless.


Sam Battams, Innovation Director


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