Maybe you’ve already heard of beacons, but if you haven’t we’re here to get you up to speed and help navigate this new technology. Since it is estimated that the demand for beacons is going to drive a 60 million-unit market by 2019, their potential for the future of location-based marketing warrants some attention from marketers.
In a very literal sense, beacons have historically served to help guide people to their destination or convey a signal meant to attract attention. The technology has evolved over time: if we want to go way back, people used well-positioned fires as signals to one another. And as we’ve made advancements, we’ve been able to develop more sophisticated ways of conveying our locations (think lighthouses, radio waves, radar, sonar, etc.). The proliferation of mobile devices is the most recent technological advancement that has impacted the way we use beacons.
Wait, So We’re Not Talking About A Lighthouse Beacon?
No, we’re talking about a new kind of beacon. It’s the next development in location-based technology designed to detect users when they come within range of a “beacon.”
Beacons are small devices that use low-energy Bluetooth signals to communicate with an app on your smartphone when you are nearby. The signal then sets off some form of action from the app, or can even allow users to interact with the beacon themselves.
The opportunity beacons present marketers lies in the ability to engage our customers in the right place and at the right time while offering utility and value. Some requirements do exist, however, in order for beacon technology to work to our advantage.
First and foremost, a smartphone user must have specific apps downloaded on their smartphone. These apps must be associated with a business that has either placed beacons themselves or worked with a beacon provider. Second, the smartphone user must also have Bluetooth enabled in order for the beacon to be able to detect their device and send an action.
Mobile engagement is a driving force in the potential for beacons: smartphone users are expected to reach 220 million U.S. adults by 2018 and mobile apps now account for 52% of total time spent with digital media. As the technology grows, and users don’t find it invasive, we’ll see more opt-ins of Bluetooth and beacon-enabled apps.
Are Beacons Currently Being Used? How?
Right now we’re largely seeing beacons used as a means to push messages to nearby mobile shoppers – retail and grocery stores have used them to trigger special offers or coupons to customers while they are in-store and near the point of sale. There have also been more innovative tests and uses, such as:
Retailers in the UK have trialed using beacons on their mannequins, with the goal of converting window shoppers into online clicks.
Estimote has used their beacons to help brick-and-mortars track a visitor’s path through stores, collecting data that can be used to analyze store layout.
Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art gives visitors of its “David Bowie Is” exhibit a mobile device and headset, and sensors placed throughout the exhibit trigger an audio experience in addition to the visual one.
It will be important for marketers to keep in mind what we mentioned above – that our use of this technology must provide people with utility and drive value for them – otherwise there is the possibility we push them away from our brand.
But What About My Privacy?
As with any new technology that uses data, especially location-based data, there is always a question of how individual privacy is handled. Critics of beacon technology have resisted its use, citing specific instances that have not kept the consumer in mind (for example, New York City’s test implementation of beacons in phone booths – though city-approved – was too sudden and under-promoted, causing backlash over privacy concerns).
People are going to require trust, control, and transparency as more businesses begin to use beacon technology. Being straightforward when apps are downloaded, and making it convenient for customers to select their settings, will be integral in gaining this trust. And ultimately it circles back to using the beacons in a way that provides true utility to the customer and makes them want to receive your message.
And What Does The Future Hold?
Future use cases of beacon technology are widespread. While current uses will remain relevant (by making sure value to the user is intact), we will also begin to see implementations with increasing levels of creativity. Imagine citywide scavenger hunts that deliver clues by beacons; parking meters with beacons that enable people to automatically pay for parking; and creating much richer, more interactive venue experiences (such as what the MLB has begun to implement in ball parks and what the Royal Botanical Gardens is working on to provide an interactive exploration of their gardens).
And in the future, as beacon usage becomes more about the experience than driving in-store purchases, the call-to-action may shift outside the user’s physical location and into the digital space. Especially as its engagement relies on mobile devices, and with the growing number of smartphones, users are one step closer to the “click-to-call” functionality that drives more calls to your business.