Beacons unlock real-time mobile research: are you ready to connect?

If only we all could reach that nirvana of customer value where our marketing is so useful, it is viewed as a service.

Certainly the amount of personalization and responsiveness that is created through marketing automation technology is a big step forward.

Another hot trend is the use of beacons, which are small proximity, push-messaging devices that can wake up applications on a nearby smartphone.

What are Beacons? 

Beacons provide marketing offers in real-time – literally as you walk past the product or retail location – and are viewed by customers as a service rather than intrusion. Since mobile is such a powerful part of the way people experience brands today, marketers are eagerly using beacon data to understand what people need “in the moment.”

The first question to answer if you are considering using beacons is, “What exactly do people want to hear from your brand on their mobile phone that could be of such high utility and value?”

In the past, advertisers had to make assumptions about messaging, and were forced to send them without the input of the consumer.

One of the great things about beacon technology is the data it provides, and smart retailers and loyalty marketers are tapping it for insights.

More than half of the top 100 U.S. retailers last year began testing beacons, according to a Business Insider Intelligence study from last August. The report estimates that 4.5 million active beacons will be set up by 2018, with 80 percent of them – 3.5 million – in use by retailers.

But the technology isn’t just for retailers. Marketing teams at stadiums, airports, restaurants, museums, hotels, malls, and events are also successful users of beacons.

Beacons use low-energy bluetooth (BLE) to communicate with a shopper’s smartphone, usually when they are on location or in a store or on site at an event.

The hope is that the information sent – a text, email, or app alert – will improve the experience and drive new sales. Beacons can send ads, coupons, offers, game scores, or any customized supplementary product information.

This brief video from ShopKick illustrates how it works, through a trial they did with Macy’s in New York and San Francisco.

That pilot was so successful, Macy’s expanded use of beacon technology to all stores nationwide in fall 2014.

One goal Shopkick is exploring is refining the technology so that if a customer approaches a display of a branded product – KitchenAid mixers, for example – a promotional message will provide a video of a user, featuring attachments available for the mixer or even a simple recipe for making cookies.

Thus, like all effective marketing automation, beacons present not just a technology challenge; it’s a content marketing challenge, too.

Not just for shoppers, beacons can also be used as point-of-sale systems and collect large amounts of data that can then be used to improve both real-time and right-time marketing, both in-store and online.

This is a huge bonanza for loyalty marketers, as they try to understand what is helpful to most customers and personalize for one customer at a time. Beacons let us see response to ads in real-time, and the swiping of offers in the application can be a fascinating bit of buyer journey data.

It’s this data that I find particularly interesting, and I encourage marketers to tap it and use the insights intelligently. Advertising – particularly on a device that is considered “personal space” by many users – can easily move from helpful to merely interesting, and even beyond to annoying.

Like everything, beacons are not a panacea to cure all ills. They don’t work on every device, for starters. Customers must have the app installed and opt-in for push notifications. That can reduce the audience opportunity size significantly.

With so many beacons already in play, it increases the stakes for getting them right.

Take a look at a few examples of how beacons are being used to help you determine if it’s a good opportunity for both your business and your customers.

Miami International Airport

Miami Airport recently launched an app that uses beacons to help consumers navigate overwhelming terminals and find the correct gate for departure.


Similarly, an airline could use a beacon to alert people to delays and direct them to the bar or shopping choices around the corner – with a coupon.


Food and spice brand McCormick & Co.’s Zatarain’s use beacons to send shoppers grocery list reminders and loyalty points.


The National Geographic Museum

The National Geographic Museum in Washington and The Guggenheim in New York City have used beacons to enhance the visitor experience.

When a viewer approaches a piece, additional information about that painting, sculpture, or magazine cover is served directly to his or her phone.
While certainly helpful in educating visitors, the real power is the tracking data provided to museum administrators.

That data can help curators determine what exhibits are most popular and which need to be tweaked to better appeal to the audience.

American Eagle Outfitters

American Eagle Outfitters tested beacons using the Shopkick app in an offer tied to use of the fitting rooms. Customers who received the offer were more than twice as likely to try on clothing as those who didn’t.

Trying on the article is a big factor in purchase, upselling, and satisfaction, not to mention reducing returns.


In total, more than 10,000 customers took part in the trial.

Virgin Atlantic

In a loyalty marketing example, Virgin Atlantic uses beacons to connect with passengers in its upper class wing at Heathrow Airport.

The beacons offer real utility: enabling travelers’ boarding passes to appear on-screen automatically at the checkpoint, which means there is no longer a need to hold up the line while trying to log in or search through emails.


In the future, the beacons can provide interesting and actionable real-time data.

For example, the built-in thermometer and accelerometer features of the beacon could potentially notify staff of temperature changes so they can react accordingly to make passengers more comfortable.

Marriott International

The Marriott International LocalPerks program using beacons at about 15 Marriott properties.

Participating guests receive a welcome message upon entering the lobby, as well as exclusive hotel incentives inside the properties, like a free drink.

Those offers were always available to loyal customers, but now the beacon provides a new channel for recognizing high value guests.


Beacons are invaluable to marketers because they help to merge all the “Moments of Truth” (MOTs) along a buying journey.

Since customer experiences that used to take days or even months now happen in a fraction of a second, mobile is the accelerator of the connection and the channel by which a physical experience is enhanced through digital communications.

How are you thinking about merging digital and physical experiences? Have you seen success with beacon programs or have some challenge that is blocking progress? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Article image via Flickr. 

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