On Beacons and proximity
9th April 14
Another in our intermittent repostings of our monthly tech column written for Marketing Magazine. This one on why Beacons, specifically Apple’s iBeacon, might make all that proximity marketing jargon simple and actually usable. The original article appeared here on 31.03.14.
Talk of frictionless mobile payments and proximity-based targeting has felt a little like waiting for jetpacks. We’ve all seen the diagrams of the device in our pocket sensing information from the environment around us with magical accuracy and we know it’s technically possible, but there’s been little sign of it actually happening in our daily lives.
The phrase ‘proximity based targeting’ may not make your pulse race. But forget for a moment the clunkiness of a QR code or the basic act of swiping a card over a sensor using NFC technology (NFC tends to be capable of simple transactions only) or location-based services like checking in on Foursquare (GPS-enabled, so not fantastically accurate, particularly indoors).
Instead, say hello to iBeacon. Unveiled by Apple last year as part of its iOS 7 launch, iBeacon is described as “a new class of low-powered, low-cost transmitters that can notify nearby iOS 7 devices of their presence.” And use that physical proximity to pass data. In Apple’s case the ‘phone (from iPhone 4 onwards) is also a beacon in its own right, capable of transmitting information not just receiving. Google is also coming up fast with beacon technology, baking it into Android 4.3.
Two things make this particularly interesting for marketers:
First, the fact that the beacons use Bluetooth LE (low energy), so succeed in delivering greater accuracy than GPS, whilst also draining less precious battery power. Suddenly we have the data transfer capabilities of Bluetooth, accurately pin-pointed to your exact location, now possible for a viable period.
Second, the data transfer is passive and immediate: it seems we’re finally at a point when devices can talk to one another without us needing to do the work.
Two commercial applications (and watchouts) to think about:
1. Enhanced experiences
For gigs, art galleries, stadiums and parks, strategically placed beacons allow users to pick up information about the history of a location or the background to a painting in a gallery, say, just by having their phone to hand. The exhibition owner in turn picks up useful information about where there are hot spots, blockages or dead zones. At SXSW in Texas this year, for example, the conference’s official mobile iOS app used iBeacon to send users information about the individual sessions they were in. Obviously the trick here as app developers is to judge the messaging content and velocity very carefully, ie do not spam people.
2. Next Generation Retail
iBeacon can work in a number of ways to change and improve a retail environment (beyond simply welcoming or issuing a coupon on arrival), for starters:
- Act as an “indoor GPS” system helping someone find the product they’re looking for
- Map where the best deals are for them, based on their previous shopping habits or perhaps the time of day/week
- Develop location-specific offers, like Macy’s are doing in the USA in partnership with Shopkick, where offers are dynamically tailored to customers based on where they are in the store.
- Beacons also make mobile payments faster and easier. Paypal are bringing out their own beacon, allowing users to make hands-free payments. The issue to overcome in the early days will be behavioural: we humans are used to physically exchanging something for goods.
And then there are the implications for out of home advertising, on-premise, not to mention peer-to-peer and our future digital identities. As marketers this is a way to rethink how we design user interactions. Fundamentally, this technology has the potential to change how we interact with the world, not just how we shop, and it’s closer than we think.