Kristian Barnes
Apr 12, 2016

To beacon, or not to beacon

Beacon technology hasn't made as much of an impact as you might expect so far. Vizeum's Kristian Barnes thinks Google's Eddystone platform may be set to change that.

Kristian Barnes
Kristian Barnes

2013 was the year of the Pebble smartwatch, Leap Motion controller, Nest Protect, Roku 3, Google Glass, and the PaperTab amongst others—all new technology that didn’t impact my life.

Well, that’s not technically true. My Leap Motion controller did impact my life during the hours I lost trying to get it to work, waving my hands around like a crazy person. It now lives with my unused collection of wrist-based wearables.

The one technology launched in 2013 that should have impacted my life, the iBeacon, strangely hasn't done so—not as much as I expected anyway. This is despite statistics claiming that 86 percent of top retailers will have deployed beacons in-store by the end of 2016.

Surely, contextual marketing is both a retailer’s dream and has a clear consumer benefit? Apparently 80 percent of smartphone owners want more mobile-optimised product information, and 40 percent of shoppers look for offers on their mobile devices while they’re shopping in-store. Beacons can provide this. A shopper can be standing in front of a product and receive an offer or more information via their mobile phone.

Yet, this clearly assistive (not to mention desirable) technology for consumers and retailers does not seem to be the success story it should be.

There are a couple of reasons. One is that up until recently, beacons required the consumer to have the retailer’s app in order to work, which is limiting to say the least. Regardless, retailers will keep investing in their own loyalty or in-store-experience apps, as this is the only way they can see to have full control over the data, branding and user experience.

Secondly, consumers find the experience of receiving an offer / discount / coupon (whatever) for the item that they are currently standing in front of to be “creepy” or “spam”—far from us thinking that they would be appreciative. British supermarket Waitrose discovered in trialing beacons that consumers became easily frustrated with the push messaging, despite the benefits of the messages.

The best use of beacons so far is in institutions such as museums. Here they are being used for audio guides, to provide visitors with more information about exhibits and for navigation. Consumers don’t mind downloading an app in this context and are happy to receive contextual push messages from it, because of the clear value proposition. Even places like Graceland use iBeacons to guide and inform visitors.

However, Google’s launch of Eddystone in 2015 has changed the game for beacons, or “lighthouses” as Google refers to them.

The transformational aspect of Eddystone is that it broadcasts a web URL to mobile users. This means that no longer does the beacon need to communicate with the shopper's mobile via a bespoke app. Instead it can simply co-opt the user's web browser.

Eddystone is open source, so all existing beacons can be updated. In addition, it allows cloud control of content, works across iOS and Android, allows for telemetry data (including longitude, latitude and temperature) and will integrate into Google Maps and Google Now for better real-time data. This is already being trialed with public transport schedules in the US city of Portland, Oregon.

Beacons are now free (in theory) of the constraint of needing an app. So what does that mean, beyond being a less lame marketing channel?

Well, it means an acceleration of the physical web and a vast improvement in understanding of the way that people move and interact within any environment—shops, malls, offices and public spaces can all be mapped via crowdsourced data. Imagine a future where, thanks to beacons:

  • A coffee machine knows when you wake up every morning and prepares your morning dose
  • You are guided to your seat in a stadium, or a food stall
  • Your boarding pass at the airport uploads automatically to your phone.
  • You know exactly how far away the train, plane, bus is.
  • You ask for assistance or a specific size in a store using a beacon's two-way communication capability.

For marketing, it also opens up scalable micro-location and contextual power. However, the value conversation with the consumer still needs to be there. Otherwise rejection will continue to be high.

So as Yoda says, “Difficult to see...Always in motion the future is”. Admittedly, he wasn’t chatting to Luke about the pros and cons of beacons, but there is no denying that “lighthouses” will grow in importance as the physical web, or Internet of Things, accelerates.

Kristian Barnes is CEO of Vizeum APAC


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