Tuesday 25 October 2016

Beacons - a new marketing ploy or big brother with bells and whistles?

Published 26/07/2015 | 02:30

Targeted ads using push notifications could prove your best friend — or an annoying waste of time
Targeted ads using push notifications could prove your best friend — or an annoying waste of time

Google is getting in on the beacons act. Beacons, if you don't know, are small devices that use Bluetooth to send signals to smartphones based on proximity.

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Last year, Business Insider predicted that there would be five million of the things in use by 2018 - and of those, four million will be used in retail outlets.

They were installed on London's Regent Street as part of a £1.7m (€2.4m) upgrade to push marketing messages to shoppers. In the USA, the bigger baseball teams use them to help fans find their seats. And Virgin Atlantic used beacons to tell passengers to open their electronic boarding pass when they approached airport security.

With all this experimentation going on, it's no surprise that the larger tech companies are trying to buddy up with marketers.

Last month, Facebook started handing out free beacons to US businesses in the hope that adding location-based targeting to its offering will prove irresistible. Apple also has its own beacons. (You guessed it, they're called iBeacons.)

Now Google is crashing the party. The search giant has created a new, open-source standard for beacons that they're calling Eddystone. In case you were wondering, their name comes from a remote lighthouse off the coast of Devon.

Google is promising greater control over privacy and personalisation. It will also make it easier for apps to differentiate specific beacons. But Eddystone's killer feature may well be that it will allow users to benefit from beacons, without having to install a specific app.

Google seems to be trying to integrate beacon functionality with the web, specifically its own web-based products.

Google Maps launched beacon-based transit notifications in Portland earlier this year. And soon, Google Now will also be able to use location data to help personalise what it shows users. Take a seat in a restaurant that uses beacons and Google Now will soon be able to display the daily specials on your phone.

Museums have been at the forefront of trying and testing beacon technology. The Brooklyn Museum created ASK, an app that works with beacons to encourage visitors to ask questions about the exhibitions during their visit.

"When they send a message to our team, the team sees where the message was sent from," says Shelley Bernstein, the museum's vice director of digital engagement and technology.

"The app reads the nearest beacon location, transmits that to the team, and then gives the team access to all the objects that are nearby the visitor so they can answer questions more fully - almost 'seeing' what is nearby when that message was sent.

"We wanted to see if our model of engagement - asking questions and getting answers - actually worked, and if beacons were needed to help show where visitors were when asking the question.

"Turns out, the location information is really vital for our team, and that's been rewarding because, in the end, it allows them to provide better customer service."

The museum had no issues with getting consumers to turn on Bluetooth and download the app - but there were other issues.

"We've had a lot of problems getting the beacons to stick to the walls," Bernstein says. "As I'm sure you can imagine this is especially problematic in an art museum. The problem was so bad for a while that visitors were picking them up and giving them to our security guards."

Bernstein also found that a beacon signal isn't that reliable.

"We've had to implement some toggling in the tool the team uses so if an incorrect location is picked up they can toggle to the next one. So it's a low-cost implementation, but we've had to spend time coding some work-arounds to help round-out the technical issues."

What advice does Bernstein offer anyone thinking of implementing beacons?

"Do a lot of testing without the technology to figure out the engagement model before adding it. We did a year's worth of pilot projects to get to ASK app and it made all the difference.

"In the end, when we started to develop we already had a working model... then we just added tech to that mix."

The Brooklyn Museum's use of beacons is a success because the communication is user-initiated. If I ask the staff a question, they're on-hand to fill me in and the technology gives them added contextual information on where I am.

Contrast this with Regent Street's use of beacons, which, at worst, amounts to street-specific spam. As you wander up and down the street, your phone buzzes with a mix of promotions and branded messages. The modern consumer is bombarded with unwanted communication.

By creating a stronger link between beacons and the Google products that consumers already rely on for information - like Google Maps - Eddystone seems designed to sidestep unwanted push notifications.

Brands and businesses thinking of using beacons should pay heed. Using beacons to send unsolicited messages is sure to alienate more consumers than it attracts.

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