RFID Hooks Up With Social Media

There was a time when RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags were regarded as nothing more than a way for retailers to control their inventory. Now marketers are seeing the potential for a whole different application of this technology… so much so that privacy advocates are getting nervous.

In August, Wal-Mart started to put removable “smart tags” on individual pieces of clothing. Hand-held scanners read the tags and tell workers when to replenish shelves with certain sizes or styles. Sounds pretty innocent.

According to The Wall Street Journal, however, the tags can be removed, but they can’t be turned off, and they are trackable. So a consumer could leave the store with an “active” tag that has information about his or her purchase. If that tag is discarded in the trash, an unsavory character could scan the consumer’s trash and find out what was purchased, at least in theory.

That may be highly unlikely – but a larger concern is looming in states like New York and Washington that are starting to implement “enhanced” driver’s licenses with unique ID numbers assigned via embedded RFID tags. Guess what – the same scanners Wal-Mart employees use to check inventory could theoretically be used to identify these consumers and even combine that data with credit card information.

Katherine Albrecht, author of the book Spychips, tells The Wall Street Journal,

“There are two things you really don’t want to tag, clothing and identity documents, and ironically that’s where we are seeing adoption. The inventory guys may be in the dark about this, but there are a lot of corporate marketers who are interested in tracking people as they walk sales floors.”

I won’t pursue the potential privacy implications of RFID at this stage, because my purpose here is to demonstrate the technology’s potential marketing applications. And an even more intriguing use of RFID is when it’s linked up with online notification and social media.

A recent report in The Trend Watch cites three specific examples. Two of them involve large marketers – Coca-Cola and Vail Resorts (more about that one in a moment). But the third example proves RFID technology isn’t just being used by the big guys. Izzy’s Ice Cream Café in Minnesota, which you probably never heard of unless you live in or have been to St. Paul, uses RFID in a unique way – to identify customer favorites out of the 100 flavors it makes, since the store can only stock 32 flavors at a time. According to The Trend Watch:

“To help customers know when their favorites are being served, Izzy’s started using RFID flavor tags. Now every time a flavor enters the dipping case, an RFID tag sends customers who crave that flavor, a real-time update.”

Now that’s the way to serve up customer service.

In a more sophisticated example, Vail Resorts in Colorado, uses RFID tags in their season passes and lift tickets to connect with a social gaming application so skiers and snowboarders can track their activities and share them with friends and family.

According to RFID Journal, Vail Resorts started using RFID technology in its ticketing system in 2008 “in order to make it easier for the company to check lift tickets at base area chairlifts across its five resorts.” The season passes or lift tickets contain an RFID inlay encoded with a unique ID number linked to a database that identifies the passholder or lift ticket purchaser. As a visitor approaches any one of 89 ski lifts at the five resorts, that individual’s tag ID is captured, and the data is transmitted and then associated with the database information. This happens each time, so the system can “aggregate the number of vertical feet that the skier or snowboarder has traveled, based on the distances between chairs.”

An application the resort company calls “EpicMix” then makes it possible for visitors to track their ski or snowboard metrics online. They can allow information-sharing between the EpicMix account and a Facebook or Twitter account if desired and then compare stats with their friends who are also on Facebook. Visitors with Web-enabled phones can use the EpicMix mobile application to receive alerts when any of their Facebook friends are skiing. Their friends’ last known location will be shown.

We’re only just beginning to see the creative ways marketers can use RFID. Who would have thought a technology initially used for something as mundane as inventory control would turn out to be a facilitator for social networking?

About Barry Silverstein

Barry Silverstein is a freelance writer/marketing consultant. In addition to writing for ReveNews, he is a contributing writer to Brandchannel.com, the world’s leading online branding forum. He is the author of three marketing books, The Breakaway Brand (co-author, McGraw-Hill, 2005), Business-to-Business Internet Marketing (Maximum Press, 2003) and Internet Marketing for Technology Companies (Maximum Press, 2003). Barry ran his own Internet and direct marketing agency for twenty years. You can find Barry on Twitter @bdsilv.

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