Social Passport taps QR codes, NFC for real-world social interaction

QR codes haven’t lit the world on fire and NFC is still a sort of a largely untapped technology that conjures up mostly visions of fast mobile payments. But New York start-up Social Passport is leveraging the technologies to create a social loyalty tool that enables consumers to socially interact with merchants and retailers in the real world, helping them check-in, like, follow or tweet about their experiences, sometimes in exchange for a discount.

The company, which recently won the best start-up at the Web 2.0 Expo, offers users a way to contain their social networking credentials in one app that can then interact with NFC tags and QR codes in the real world. The idea is that a merchant or business can post an NFC tag and QR code in their store on a sign and users can then use the app to initiate an action. For example, after tapping their NFC phone, the app pops up and offers a range of options suggested by the merchant, things like checking-in on Foursquare, posting their visit on Facebook, tweeting about the store on Twitter or following the business.

Creating real world share buttons

What’s interesting about this is that the NFC tag or QR code doesn’t take people to a URL, which is what a lot of QR codes do now. It enables social interaction, similar to the way a share button online works. Now, a user can quickly share about a business immediately. Some may just choose to do so because they like a merchant. Or they want to just check-in quickly, which is one scenario that appeals to me. But merchants can make it worth it for a consumer by offering an immediate discount or loyalty points.

That’s where this gets really valuable for businesses and consumers. A business can offer a coupon that can be redeemed immediately at the point of sale and can also be shared online via Social Passport. That gives consumers an incentive to take action and it also allows a merchant to leverage that user’s social network to get the word out about their business. Once a user claims a discount, Social Passport creates a unique 2-D barcode that can be scanned by a merchant’s laser scanners, Android (s goog) and iOS (s aapl) devices or a web cam.

Groupon alternative for merchants

This could a nice alternative to customer acquisition through Groupon (s grpn), which involves setting a steep discount and handing over a big chunk of the revenue to Groupon. Instead, businesses can tap their existing users and get them to broadcast their real-world interactions with a business online through their social networks. And they can set more modest discounts that they can afford as an ongoing outreach tool.

“We want to create a platform for businesses to leverage and incentivize social media actions,” said David Merel, the CEO and founder of Social Passport.

Business owners can build their own loyalty programs through Social Passport, rewarding users for visits or purchases. Or they can tie their existing loyalty programs into Social Passport. Business owners access Social Passport through their own dashboard, where they can set discounts and what social actions they want to prompt. And they can see analytics on who has scanned, how many discounts have been redeemed and how many people they’ve reached. In addition to QR scanning and NFC, Social Platform also offers reverse QR scanning so instead of a user scanning a QR code, they can display their own QR code and merchants can scan them.

Solving problems for merchants

Merel previously founded ThinkBright, a long distance and VoIP provider and Merel Technologies, which creates a multi-touch table like Microsoft’s Surface. He got the idea for Social Passport after ESPN (s dis) looked at his table technology to enable people to create social actions in the real world at the X Games. Merel started creating his own solution in January to address that problem and also solve the needs of merchants, including people like his family who are in the restaurant business. The company has about $350,000 in seed funding to date and is looking to raise more.

Social Passport has only been out for several weeks and it’s being used by about 50,000 users and 1,000 merchants said Merel, mostly in the New York area. The company plans to roll out to Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco in the next couple of years. The biggest hurdle will be to get merchants on board, which can take a lot of manpower. Toward that end, Merel is offering 10,000 free NFC chip stickers to merchants who sign up here. Social Passport is also looking to partner with big chains and advertising firms, who work with retailers. The company is making the service free for the first year for businesses and plans to charge a subscription fee after that.

Showing the power of NFC and QR codes

I’m intrigued by Social Passport because it could be a way for a merchant to tap social interactivity in the real world and make that work for them. Instead of relying on Groupon’s list of customers, business owners can make better use of their own customers and offer them discounts that can be spread virally. Companies like SinglePlatform offer a resource for restaurant owners to handle all their online and social media presence through one dashboard. But Social Passport could be good in bringing in that offline to online component. Google also pushed out NFC tag stickers last year to businesses as part of its Google Places campaign. But that initiative, which was mainly aimed at pushing Google Places, enabled users to get more information about a store from their phone. What’s good about Social Passport is that it can handle all kinds of social networks, so it doesn’t just forward the goals of one company. That is valuable for users who want to share via different channels. Right now, it supports Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace and Foursquare with other services like Google+ and Yelp planned.

It’s still early for NFC, which is still only available on a handful of devices, but Social Passport shows where NFC can be more than just payments and in fact can be a very powerful marketing tool. It can speed people along toward all kinds of actions. That’s the beauty of NFC; it’s just a very versatile wireless technology. I can just tap it and jump toward a specific function. It’s also nice to see QR codes become more valuable to users.

I think Social Passport has a ways to go in getting momentum with merchants and also consumers on board. It’s hard for a company of just eight people to get millions of businesses to respond. But I think this could be a solid option for businesses looking to get more social and bring in more customers.