Ever since we went to the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) last year, we (as well as half the planet) have been very curious about beacons. At the time it seemed like an incredible promise, and a spectacular way to tie together online and offline.
If you’ve yet to come across what beacons are, in plain English they are small emitters that broadcast a signal that can be picked up with a smartphone. Using the beacon’s signal, a smartphone can display contextual messages such as, “Today we have a special deal on women’s tees” when you’re walking into the women’s section in a store. All a user needs is an app looking for those beacons. This is platform independent as well – iPhone or Android, it doesn’t matter.
Companies like Estimote and Kontakt took early advantage of the huge interest by creating some of the first beacon products on the market. The first beacons we had our paws on were Estimote ones, around November last year. From that point we’ve taken various beacon products through the proverbial wringer, creating proof of concepts around particular scenarios we wanted to explore.
(The Estimote Beacon product)
A few months later, there’s a lot to say. As with any new technology, the early days are pretty volatile territory, but we wanted to share some learnings around the initial promise of beacons, good or bad. Enjoy!
1. Hardware Matters
Initially, the market was screaming for beacon products with very few players being able to deliver. Having watched that go crazy and after comparing tons of different ones, the verdict is definitely in. They differ. A lot. I don’t want this to turn into a product review, but let’s just say that the outcome you’re after will depend a lot on what product you’re acquiring. Responsiveness, customizability, battery life, signal strength, broadcast patterns… They all are wildly different between brands. Do your research.
2. It Kicks Wi-Fi’s Ass
Many of the unique USPs around beacons can already be achieved with Wi-Fi, but ultimately each have its strengths. Beacons, running Bluetooth LE (Low Energy), runs circles around Wi-Fi when it comes to energy consumption of the device. It also offers more precise location tracking, which is important if you’re looking to gain operational efficiency. Lastly, a solid Wi-Fi coverage capable of a positioning system can be quite cost-prohibitive, unlike beacons.
3. It’s Very Fast to Get Up and Running
After overcoming the initial “gotchas” of developing for beacons, creating customized small prototypes for interactions within a physical space takes very little time. As a result, it’s very low risk to do beacon trials within certain environments and analyze the results. A low investment barrier is often key to get trials up and running.
4. Data. So Much Data.
Because you can do certain actions when a smartphone is in range of a beacon, regardless of user interaction (the app doesn’t even have to be running!), there’s an enormous potential for data capture. Just make sure you’re explicitly telling users about it. Overlaying this data on a floor plan allows retail brands to gain insight on “dead zones” in their stores, as well as finding out what areas are the highest value.
5. The “LE” in Bluetooth LE Holds Up
Bluetooth LE (Low Energy) claims to be highly energy efficient, and it really is. The real world impact on smartphone batteries is a lot less than I thought it would be. That being said, the more background tasks you try to run, the more it all adds up.
6. Contextual Advertising Is Real
Serving up location-specific offers, or instantly rewarding return visitation is definitely real, and doable today. “Welcome to the men’s section of David Jones, today we have a special deal on black ties” as a corny example, is achievable right now. Be mindful, however. The fact that beacons have the power to wake your phone up and notify you on the lock screen is easily exploitable and will make people fairly annoyed if you’re not actually adding any value beyond triggering messages.
7. It’s Only Getting Better
Over the past three months, hardware has rapidly improved, software (iOS and Android) has gotten more adept at dealing with beacons, and we have certainly learnt the shortcomings and pain points. From this point onward, it’s only going to get better. This is today, and if you want to think hyper-local, beacons are one of the most cost-effective solutions you’re ever going to see.
In closing, we, just like everyone else, are absolutely fascinated by all the opportunities that beacons present. But, like Voltaire (and Spiderman’s uncle) noted, “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s very easy to see local notifications being abused out in the wild and brands have to find a very delicate balance of grabbing the attention of their customers without coming across as spammy.
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