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iBeacon Sets Consumers' Phones to Stun

"Don't over-message your audience," and other advice for merchants excited about Apple's beyond-GPS tech.

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Few technologies have so quickly captured businesses’ imaginations as iBeacon has. In just a few months, it has gone from an unaddressed bullet in Apple’s WWDC keynote to garnering wide industry support this fall as an available technology in iOS 7. Now, a handful of months later, iBeacon is playing in the big leagues. Hundreds of grocery stores and retail shops are rolling out iBeacon experiments, alongside prominent use at the NFL’s Super Bowl XLVIII. Major League Baseball has expanded its initial experiment to install 100 iBeacons each in 20 ballparks by Opening Day 2014.

IBeacon essentially takes over where GPS leaves off, offering a cost-effective, battery-efficient means of indoor location tracking that can trigger apps to serve compelling digital content based on a user’s location and proximity to points of interest. It’s a game changer for businesses seeking to meld indoor environments with digital experiences, and to get closer to the marketing nirvana of sending the right message to the right people at the right time and place.

For consumers, iBeacon offers a completely new level of ease and convenience in getting exactly what they need, where they need it — all automatically served up. From sports stadiums directing you to your seat or shorter concessions lines, to grocery stores that serve interactive maps tailored to your shopping list, with relevant coupons delivered aisle by aisle, iBeacon can offer stunning experiential improvements that provide true utility and build brand value through uniquely mobile moments.

The perils

However, for the uninitiated — as most everyone is right now — the knee-jerk reaction and obvious iBeacon use cases should be avoided. Just like any tool, iBeacon can and will be used in stunningly bad ways, and it will cost some companies dearly. (It has even happened with push notifications, including some seriously Bad Push.)

Consider iBeacon triggering a welcome message or exit survey based on people entering or leaving your store. It seems simple, and even customer-focused, in a techno-quaint, “one-size-fits-all” sort of way. But by the second or third time you have received the exact same message as every other shopper, you start to get annoyed. By the fifth or sixth time, you’re holding down the app until it shakes to be deleted, because it’s faster and easier than revoking in-store notifications. And by the ninth or 10th store brand that treats you exactly like everyone else, every single time, you decide to take a stand, and forsake any part of a beacon-triggered utopia, lest the machines take over everything.

Seriously, though, after a few too many buzzing, irrelevant alerts, the best you can hope for (perhaps naively) is that customers tune you out and let your brand remain on their mobile devices. Some have envisioned scenarios where grocery stores become their own ad networks, auctioning off the end cap of each aisle for different brands to advertise to shoppers. Chiming, beeping, buzzing ads trip-wired to every aisle, hawking the latest must-have products — you won’t be able to put your phone down.

At around $100 per iBeacon, Bluetooth LE is revolutionary in that it offers an inexpensive way to drive innovative, proximity-based customer interactions and derive more value from your mobile and physical presence. It just needs to be done thoughtfully, and tuned and targeted to what matters to each and every customer. Anything less, and you put your massive app investment and double-digit growing mobile business at risk.

Top recommendations

The next six months will see some winning and losing iBeacon-enabled experiences, and businesses will need to quickly mature their approaches and become more customer-centric. Our key recommendations include:

  • Establish the expectation for valuable, relevant messages through your app’s regular push notifications
  • Use individual app preferences and behaviors to tailor beacon-triggered messages
  • Use responses to those messages as additional signals about users’ interests and preferences for ongoing segmentation
  • Build logic and trigger management into iBeacon deployments, including frequency caps and timing delays so you don’t over-message your audience
  • Leverage dwell times and distances from iBeacon to finesse messaging

To keep shoppers tuned in and turned on, relevancy rules. If it’s done well, your customers will feel as if they’ve gained a personal shopper — an advocate, even — someone looking out for them, finding them the best deals and delivering personalized service where and when it’s needed most.

Also, while all eyes are on how iBeacon will impact the customer experience, don’t forget about the potentially larger opportunity to gain deeper insight into in-store or in-venue traffic patterns, shopper or visitor behaviors, and how your digital and physical channels work in concert.

It is definitely time to start executing on your in-store and in-venue mobile experience. While it’s still early days for iBeacon, leaders and losers will emerge quickly, and the brands that will be rewarded most are those that focus on innovation for the sake of their customers’ experiences.

Brent Hieggelke is CMO at Urban Airship, a leader in mobile relationship management solutions. He is a member of the Mobile Marketing Association’s North America board. Reach him @bhieggelke.

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