Friends Don’t Let Friends Use vCards

vCards for Events If you’re looking for an on-site event management system that includes badging, lead retrieval and attendance tracking for your conference, corporate event or roadshow, find one that doesn’t rely on vCards. She: “Oh, you’re just trying to sell me your software.” Me: “What do you mean?” She: “I can probably find someone to print badges with QR codes containing vCards.” Me: “That may be true, but your exhibitors will not be happy with that solution and you won’t be able to easily accomplish your other goals, like attendance tracking.” She: “A code is a code. We can probably make it work.” Me: “OK, fine. Then how about this: promise me that whatever solution you choose – even if it’s not ours – please, don’t use vCards. No one will be happy.” She: “Ok. Thanks for your time.” That’s one of my many real conversations on the subject of using vCards at events.

So, WTF is a vCard?

According to Wikipedia:
“vCard is a file format standard for electronic business cards. vCards are often attached to e-mail messages, but can be exchanged in other ways, such as on the World Wide Web or instant messaging. They can contain name and address information, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, URLs, logos, photographs, and audio clips.”
One of the “other ways” is to encode a vCard in a QR code. The intent is that scanning the QR code with the proper software for your smartphone will result in capturing that contact information on your phone which you can then export to something more meaningful like your CRM system, your Marketing Automation System or some other, more sophisticated platform. The results are very different.

“That’s the great thing about standards – there are so many of them to choose from!”

Not all vCards are the same. More importantly, not all software treats the QR code the same after a scan. Most importantly, not all software treats the resulting vCard data the same way. Let’s start with the most important part: different vCards. As of this writing, you can find any number of vCard versions in use throughout the world:
  • vCard 2.1
  • vCard 3.0
  • vCard 4.0
  • xCard
  • jCard
  • hCard 1.0
Some versions are Required to use certain data fields (like Name) while others only Support certain fields – important data points like:
  • The Organization a person represents
  • A Timestamp indicating when the data was last updated
  • A Telephone number where the person can be reached
  • etc.
And while some data are supported across all versions, each vCard version is slightly different than the other. Oh – and then there are the vCard Extensions. Extensions contain data like Twitter ID, Skype Username, Spouses Name and, for those of you still working like it’s 1990, your GroupWise system. Some Extensions represent Spouse as “X-SPOUSE” while others use “X-KADDRESSBOOK-X-SpouseName”. You don’t have to know what these are. Just understand that they introduce variables into your event.

Still More Variables

Next, there’s the software – and there are two kinds of software to be concerned with:
  1. The software used to encode the data and create the QR code
  2. The software (probably on a smartphone) used to recognize, scan and decode the data
QR codes can be created with some variations. These are things like:
  • Size
  • Foreground color
  • Background color
  • Block Size
  • Margin Size
  • Error Correction
Again, you don’t have to know what all of these mean, but they are all variables that may impact your event. The most important is Error Correction. One of the benefits of QR codes is their ability to sustain “damage” and continue to function even when a part of the QR code is obscured, defaced or removed. There are four levels of Error Correction in QR codes. The higher the level of Error Correction, the denser the code. The denser the code, the more difficult it is to read and the longer it takes to scan.

Does this data make my QR code look fat?

Here’s the thing about QR codes: the more data you try to stuff into them, the more complex they become and the more difficult they become to scan. So, even if you could standardize all your exhibitors on the same software and all your QR codes on the same vCard version, your QR codes can still only store a limited amount of data before they become practically unusable.

All Locked Up

Because vCards are an open standard, you’ll find a variety of software to scan and decode them on smartphones, tablets, and computers. And, because these software applications have only one function – to read and decode – they don’t provide the things you need to produce a real-time, networked event. Once a scan occurs, it stays on the phone until someone makes the effort to export it. More importantly, each device is an island – if you’re working on a team, no one else knows that the scan occurred. One event-specific example of this is Lead Retrieval. (Can we stop calling it Lead Retrieval? How about Lead Capture? Something else? But, I digress…)

A Likely Scenario

Lizzie scans an attendee’s badge while at their exhibit booth. The software on her phone reads the QR code and shows her the prospect’s vCard data. If Lizzie wants to capture a note about the person, she’ll have to edit the vCard to enter some text. (This changes the timestamp – “last edited” property – of the vCard. This will become important later.) Her partner at the event, Jack, meets the same attendee during dinner and scans the prospect’s badge. Jack then edits the vCard to capture his notes. (Also changing his time stamp.) At this point, neither Lizzie nor Jack knows that each of them has met this prospect. It’s not until they travel back to the office do they even know that they met the same person. Now comes the “fun” part – importing that data into their CRM system. First, their CRM system doesn’t directly support vCards, so they have to find a way to convert their leads to an Excel file. Once in Excel, they have to remove any duplicates. But, which vCard is the correct one? They can’t just choose the most recent one because Lizzie’s notes will be lost. To overcome this challenge, they must review every single lead and determine if it’s a duplicate, merge the notes, then collaborate on their discussions with the prospect and only then determine who should follow-up.

How It Should Work

Lizzie scans the prospect’s badge. The scan is synced with the cloud (along with Lizzie’s notes). Later, when Jack scans the prospect’s badge at dinner, Jack is immediately notified that this person has already had a conversation with Lizzie and can use that information to uncover more ways to solve the prospect’s challenges. (Follow-up has already begun!) When they return to the office, the data is automatically de-duped and pushed directly to their CRM system. Follow-up with the above-mentioned prospect – and all the others – happens the very next day.

vCards are Open – to Everyone

Finally, let’s talk privacy and security. When you put all that data into a QR code, it’s available for anyone to scan and capture. There are no protections available whatsoever. That means anyone who finds the badge can scan it with any smartphone and use that personal information…for whatever they want. Is that really something that you want to be responsible for? I know I don’t.

Three Months Later…

She: “Hi, John. It’s me. Can we talk again about using your software for our upcoming event?” Me: “Sure. How did your last event go?” She: “It was great. Except…our exhibitors couldn’t figure out how to get the scans off their phones, so their results weren’t very good. Some of them have told me that they probably won’t come back next time.” Me: “I’m sorry to hear that. How can we help?” Remember folks: friends don’t let friends use vCards.