Experts
20 . 12 . 21

Is this the smart paper for print advertising?

Words by: Print Power
We often think of tech as replacing print. But what if paper could be a sustainable alternative to plastic electronics and offer a multi-channel marketing solution in one? We talk to entrepreneur Niels Postma, whose company Tapp.online is producing paper embedded with smart technology that bridges the gap between print and digital.
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Your company produces innovative tech-in-paper solutions. Is your background in paper?

No, I'm a lawyer actually - my background has nothing to do with paper. In my last year of study, I went on a study trip to Japan. It was the first time in six years of study that I was confronted with the practicality of law. And it was at that point that I decided I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life as I'm more of an entrepreneur. So I came back to the Netherlands and started working at a printing shop with the idea of buying that company and becoming CEO. I knew nothing about paper, so it was quite challenging. But it also made me look at paper and think, what if we could make it a substitute for plastics and the base material for electronics? I was working nights and weekends to try and make paper work in the way I wanted it to. It started with the QR code because that is the simplest form of making paper smart. We started the company back in March 2020.

How would you describe to a client what Tapp.online does?

I usually use the four words ‘we make paper smart’. That’s the product, but the need behind the product is data. Making paper smart, with the chips and sensors is something not everyone can do. But the real value lies in the software behind it - where you can actually see interactions occur and where you can see the data being validated. For instance, we make paper that measures and logs the temperature of potatoes as they’re moved from A to B, and we made a software platform that lets you visualise and track that data.

We make the software that bridges the gap between paper and the digital world and that gives us insights into how the paper performs
Niels Postma
Founder/Tapp.online

Can you tell us a bit about some of the solutions you’ve produced for marketing purposes and how they’ve brought creativity and innovation to advertising campaigns?

We produced a poster for a large beer brand in the Netherlands. It was sent out to student residences. The poster had a chip inside that you could tap your phone to, after which a crate of beer was delivered to your doorstep within an hour. That poster went viral, and the brand become famous in a week over there.

We also created an invitation for the car brand Citroën. They’d just released a new supercar, but it wasn’t selling very well. So they launched a competition to find a successful marketing solution. We thought, well if you have an innovative car, you should also have an innovative invitation to test drive it. And we won the contest to create that invitation, beating 900 companies. It was very simple, actually. You tapped your phone to the invitation and the car was brought to you at your location. You could test drive it for 24 hours before it was collected again. We also won a stand at CES 2020 – one of the biggest tech shows in the world. We’re going again in January. We are one of 50 start-ups from the Netherlands selected by the Dutch government to exhibit at CES 2022 in Vegas in January. The theme of the show is responsible tech for a healthy future.

You’ve talked about heat sensors and about location technology? What are the other possibilities for tech embedded in paper?

Good question. We ask ourselves the same question every day. We're a small start-up, so we don't have 20 people in research and development. But we've been told that a start-up should have a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal), so our BHAG is to get every sensor we can find into paper. We’ve been asked about embedding a co2 sensor into paper, so we're contacting the companies that make sensors to find out how flat they can make them. We’d need to get them as flat as possible because paper needs to be thin. That’s one of the biggest problems really, all the sensors are pretty big. We're also running a test with printing a humidity sensor where ink is used in place of silicon.

So what is it you need to develop more of these applications and to make your business even bigger?

We’ve co-created all of the applications we’ve produced. So we've either found a launching partner, or they found us. They say to us, this is what we want, and this is what we want measured. Can you make it? And we tell them, we don’t know, but we can invest in it if you invest with us too. So  everything we've done, we’ve done it together with a client. I think that partnerships and joint funding are the only way forward. If we get together, we can do some great stuff.

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There are endless opportunities for brands to cleverly connect with their customers using your technology in multi-channel campaigns. Are you approaching advertising agencies to work on marketing campaigns?

That's the way we want to work. We don't want to go directly to the consumer market because that's not really workable. I think if you could define us, we are nerds with computers lying everywhere. We make the software that bridges the gap between paper and the digital world and that gives us insights into how the paper performs.

Can you tell us about any advertising campaigns you’re currently working on?

We did some stickers for Coca Cola in cinemas. In a cinema, it's obviously very dark. So we created stickers with glow in the dark ink, and a chip inside that lets you order a Coke direct to your seat, so you don't have to walk to the bar. We were also supposed to create a gigantic island enriched with NFC (near-field communication) for a festival in the Netherlands. So you’d be able to put music on, order a drink, book a seat - all via a chip. But then the Delta variant came along, and the festival was postponed. For the brand Lipton, we created 20,000 stickers that were placed on terraces in the Netherlands. You could order a drink through the smart stickers. For T-Mobile we created a paper lanyard for a show back in 2020. You could enter a room and appear on a big screen with a personalised welcome message.

If print media can demonstrate what its impact is, then it can improve its position in terms of value in the marketing mix, to brands and also to agencies. What can your technology do in terms of readership measurement?

Well sometimes a simple QR code is the best possible solution for measurement. A QR code is free, but it's not that secure. So if you want a special or secure message, you shouldn't use a QR code. For instance, we’ve just created 5,000 Christmas cards for a client with a chip inside. The embedded chip was  linked to a personalised video message from the CEO. By tapping your phone to that card, you create an interaction, and we can measure that interaction. We can do the same with a QR code, but if you want to know how many times a product is picked up, for instance, then you need a Bluetooth solution or maybe an NFC. We can do something with a chip or motion sensor that measures if you pick something up. We're working on a new chip that works without a power supply - it gets its power from radio waves, and it can tell you in real time if it's being moved or if it's being picked up. But it has a certain cost price, and I don’t know if it’s feasible to embed it in, let's say, 10,000 magazines. But then again, going back to the Christmas card we’ve just produced – that cost one euro and five cents for one card. Not that much for a card with gold foil!

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Does paper become difficult to recycle once you've embedding technology into it?

It's much easier than you think. To recycle paper, you make pulp out of it, but first you separate the ink. We use batteries that are printed from ink and that ink is recycled in the de-inking process. There are no changes needed in the recycling process whatsoever – our paper just blends in with regular paper waste. Then we have very small sensors and chips. that are the size of a grain of sand. If you add all the electronic components in our paper together, they would be similar in size to a staple. And staples are filtered out in that same recycling process, so all that’s left is regular pulp.