Since Apple launched their iBeacons, a Bluetooth-based proximity channel, some marketers have seen them as the saviour of in-store engagement. Retailers from Macy’s to Tesco’s are trialling the technology. In France, the supermarket chain Carrefour is putting them in 1000 stores. However, beacons present a common digital marketing challenge; technology itself is never a brand marketing solution. In the late 90s nearly $200 million was put into a scanning device called Cue Cat. It was sent to over 1.5m million people in the hope that they would scan bar codes printed in magazines instead of typing in URLs. In spite of the backing from major brands and publishers, the project was a failure. From a user perspective it didn’t solve any problems. When Beacons first launched I wrote a blog, Bluetooth the Revenge, pointing out the limitations of beacons as a marketing technology. The two practical hurdles are that people need an app installed and their Bluetooth turned on. Whenever I have researched it, that number is around 30% of people (there’s some research here). So 70% don’t have their Bluetooth on. For brands, as always, the key is to get the engagement right. They need to give their customers some pretty good reasons to use iBeacons. I’m not sure if giving offers is enough. To get users to engage, brands will need to use it to solve real problems, not just encourage more purchases. There have been a couple of recent studies, that suggest, unsurprisingly, that users don’t want to be stalked by brands in store. Opinion Lab, for example found that 77% of people don’t want to be tracked in shops. Our phones are personal and it seems like we have enough marketing already. My worry with beacons is that they will simply be consigned to the dustbin of technology history. In a few years time will we look back and say ‘do you remember iBeacons’, along with the Apple Newton and the Cue Cat?
Remember Bluetooth marketing? Well it’s back, kind of, in the form of Beacons and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). It’s a proximity device that connects to smartphones via BLE and can send information and take payments seamlessly. There was much talk in marketing circles about the potential of Apple’s iBeacon, but what are the possibilities for marketers? And is it a realistic proposition?
At 2013’s launch of the iPhone 5S/C one feature slipped by barely noticed – iBeacons. The system makes use of a function called Bluetooth Low Energy. It has been available in high end smartphones for a few years, and unlike its earlier predecessor, it uses tiny amounts of power to connect to nearby devices. Beacons are small units (2-3cm long) that can be powered off a lithium watch battery for a couple of years. These can then be situated around a store and send data to and from smartphones via an app.
Imagine I go in to a department store, and I have their app on my smartphone. As I enter it, a Beacon picks up my presence and alert pops up on my mobile to tell me of an offer in a particular department. As I reach the relevant department, the app tells me where the product is. If I decide to purchase, then I can simply confirm that through the app. At the till, a photo pops up to confirm my identity and I leave the store. For many brands, that kind of scenario seems to offer a great solution to problems such as ‘showrooming’. It allows them to have a consumer conversation precisely at the point of purchase.
The system has already been tested by Shopkick in Macy’s and will shortly be rolled out to over 100 Amerian Eagle Stores. . There are also companies such as Estimote who are supplying beacons that can be cheaply purchased. Some commentators have suggested that they will become an important, distruptive technology this year
Of course, Beacons are not without their problems, many of them are similar to the old-style Bluetooth. For starters, the handset needs to have the right features available; BLE and location services turned on, and a relevant app installed (according to TNS, around 35% of people in the UK use the Bluetooth feature on their handset). But as with other marketing technologies, there are also issues of user permissions and expectations. Whilst Beacons can be used to precisely monitor and guide customers through a store, the question is whether they will find this acceptable. For example, will consumers allow their photo to pop-up on the store till in order to allow them to make an automated payment on their smartphone? Given recent privacy issues from the NSA to the WiFi tracking in London, it is unlikely that consumers will trust brands enough to allow it (there will be the inevitable cry of ‘Minority Report’).
In many ways, Beacons are a slightly more targeted version of Bluetooth marketing. Some people think it could change the world, but history suggests that the take up by consumers will be pretty small.