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A better way to use beacons

It's become fairly commonplace in the marketing world to pinpoint people's geographic locations and reach them with ads or deals that are relevant to their location. However, doing this on a micro level (that is to say, exactly what floor they're on in a building, or what aisle they're in in a store) is still considered a challenge. Where GPS or WiFi triangulation is pretty good at identifying someone at the block-level, they're rarely refined enough to determine, within a few inches, where people are once they move indoors.

Depending on what type of marketer you are, you might be asking "who cares?" -- or else you might be nodding along in agreement. Because while some marketers only need "close enough," others would love to know if their customers are within arm's reach of the product -- which is where beacon technology comes into play.

For those not yet familiar with beacon technology, a primer: Beacons are small Bluetooth enabled devices that "talk" to wireless devices in their vicinity to pinpoint location within a few feet. Compared with more macro-level location identification technology, these low-energy devices offer tens or even hundreds of microlocation points, not only identifying where a person is, but how close or how far away she is from another point. Theoretically, a series of beacons in a shoe store can not only identify that a shopper is in the high heels section, but more specifically detect that she is standing near a specific shelf or rack and in what direction she is walking. And that's where things start to get interesting.

In their most common current use, beacons -- to which consumers must opt in by downloading an app or turn on Bluetooth on their device -- are almost exclusively used as push technology. So, for the woman standing near the pair of heels, her phone might display an ad offering a 10 percent discount off of a particular brand. Later, in the casual shoes section, she might receive another offer for two-for-one flats.

In situations such as these, shoppers are targeted based on their explicit locations. We know a person is at the store, and we know that she entered the produce section or turned down the cereal aisle, so we can infer that she needs to buy items in these sections and may appreciate information that facilitates her purchase. But marketers run the risk of over-using the technology in this scenario.

I like to call these push beacon messages "landmine" ads. Customers aren't aware of exactly where a beacon is until they walk close enough to one to set it off, and -- boom -- their shopping journeys are interrupted by a blast of impersonal messaging purely based on their locations.

Consumers put up with push advertising online because they don't really have a choice and it's easy enough to just close the browser window or walk away from the laptop. On a mobile device, in a store, push messaging requires almost perfect timing and context, or else risk being seen as intrusive and distracting. And the intelligence behind beacon content delivery is not quite there yet.

Marketers might have better luck with beacons -- and consumers might have greater benefits -- if beacons are used to monitor more implicit actions. So, let's move our shopper from the shoe store to a car dealership. Car shoppers rarely arrive to a lot without having an idea of at least the type of car they're looking for and a budget; you'd think that marketing to them would be cut and dry, but it's not. So our shopper goes to her local dealership to find a BMW X5 -- a sensible, if pricey, family-friendly car. But before she enters the dealership, her eye catches the M4 convertible, a sporty compact model that's not even close to what she's ostensibly looking for and well above her price range. She lingers in front of the car for a few minutes, using prompts from the digitally enabled signage to get more information on her phone, before going on to talk to a sales rep about family cars closer to her budget and needs. Rather than push her deals and offers, she is using this in-store technology to pull more information about the product. The nearby beacon is also measuring how much time she spent standing near the convertible.

Now, thanks to beacons and this shopper's action of pulling content about the convertible, we have a combination of implied and expressed data about this shopper's intent. For the shopper herself, actually touching the M4 she had previously written off and then learning more about it via the digital experience has put that item back into her consideration set, even if only subconsciously. Now BMW can factor this expressed intent data, as well as a longer list of cars the shopper walked by, into its retargeted marketing programs and either give her incentives to purchase the M4 or even use similar features found in both cars to better market the X5 to her.

This model of beacon-driven remarketing based on implicit consumer cues can be applied to any sort of considered purchase, large or small -- washing machines at an appliance store or blue jeans at the mall -- and is, I'd argue, a more effective long-term use of the location-detection technology. There are no obtrusive push messages, no creepy alerts to let shoppers know that the store knows exactly where they are -- just follow-up to indicate that an establishment (or more specifically, its marketers) wants to help a consumer obtain the products she has indicated that she wants, as opposed to offering the means to purchase the ones she needs.

Michael Glass is the co-founder and U.S. managing director at CloudTag.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Mike is a seasoned digital marketer and technology futurist who has spent the last decade helping some of the world’s most recognized and respected CPG and entertainment brands adapt their marketing efforts to the digital age. At digital...

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