[updated November 2018]
Unless marketers learn from the mistakes made with QR codes, iBeacon technology could end up going the same way. Let me explain.
Over the past twelve months or so it seems that advertising beacons, a new-ish piece of mobile tech, has pretty much every B2C marketer or technologist so excited that they’re jumping up and down like a 3 year-old with ADHD.
“Beacons will change mobile marketing forever!”
“Beacons allow messages to be targeted like never before!”
So what’s all the fuss about?
“Beacons” are small, battery-powered Bluetooth transmitters that work with modern smartphones via an app. The technology uses the Bluetooth Low Energy transmission standard and is supported by pretty much every new-ish mobile device whether iOS, Android or Windows Phone. Strictly speaking the term “iBeacon” is specific to Apple, who announced support of the technology at their WWDC developers conference back in 2013. However thanks to Cupertino’s muscle the term iBeacon has pretty much slipped into marketing vernacular, regardless of the device concerned.
What Do iBeacons Actually Do?
On its own, an iBeacon doesn’t actually do very much. It simply broadcasts a unique code to anything that can receive its signal, such as your smartphone. If you have an app installed on your phone that can make sense of the signal, then the app will decypher the iBeacon code and send a message to you. That’s pretty much it.
So what’s the big deal? Well, potentially quite a lot. Especially for marketers looking for new opportunities in mobile advertising.
Since you have to be pretty close to an iBeacon for the magic to happen, the technology allows companies to target consumers based on their physical location. You could be walking past a particular perfume counter in a department store and receive a message about a Chanel promotion. Or you could walk up to the Mona Lisa and get sent information on the life and times of Leonardo da Vinci. All without the user having to actually do anything. If you’re using an iPad as a sort of Point-Of-Sale device in your store, you can even set it up to be its own iBeacon, broadcasting to iPads and iPhones in the immediate vicinity. The technology can be used in a huge variety of applications and are already being rolled-out by retailers, hotel chains and sports venues. The possibilities, as they say, are endless.
And that’s where, if we’re not careful, the potential misuse of advertising-based beacons will begin. Moreover many of the potential issues are similar to why QR codes have so far failed to gain mass-market acceptance.
For the sake of not opening up a can of worms regarding privacy, let’s ignore whether consumers will agree to yet another way for companies to know their whereabouts (since while the Bluetooth signal exchange is anonymous, there are no standards for the iBeacon-reading apps themselves).
An iBeacon Exchange Isn’t Really Transparent
You need to have Bluetooth activated on your phone, specifically the “Low Energy” flavor. Normal Bluetooth – the one that you’ve probably had in your phone for years – isn’t compatible. But in a world where travel is dictated by the location of the nearest phone charging outlet, how many people do you know that leave their Bluetooth connection turned on?
In reality you’re reliant on your audience turning Bluetooth on when they’re near your iBeacon – so that’s something that they need to ‘do’ before being able to receive your message.
There’s An App For That. Unfortunately.
Users need to have already downloaded an app that can make sense of that iBeacon signal. Initially, we thought that everyone needed to make their own app for consumers to install – clearly clogging up one’s phone with 101 vendor apps isn’t going to happen. Thankfully there are a growing number of one-size-fits-all apps that can accept iBeacon signals from multiple vendors – such as London’s Regent Street App. However, the point is that you still need to install an app – another weak link in the chain.
One of the reasons why QR codes have so far failed to gain mass adoption by “normal people” (i.e. anyone who doesn’t work in media, tech, or publishing) is that the user has to install an app on their phone before anything can happen. When they find a QR code (and assuming that they know what to do when they see one) they have to fire-up the app and scan the code. What a pain in the proverbial.
What needs (needed?) to happen for QR codes to gain real traction is for the phone manufacturers to build-in QR code recognition at operating system level – i.e. there’s nothing for the user to install. Just open the “Camera” app and point it at the code, at which point the phone should be clever enough to say “Aha! This looks like a QR code. Do you want me to take you to the link that’s in there? Yes/No”.
(Think that the great unwashed already know what to do when they see a QR code? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve looked at a someone’s phone and found a bunch of QR codes in their camera roll that they’ve photographed and wondered why nothing happened.)
It’s About Them, Not About You
But the real, bigger issue with mobile tech such as iBeacons, QR codes, NFC or Augmented Reality lies less in the tech itself, and more in its application, and by that I’m talking specifically about their use in marketing.
Nearly every story about mobile tech talks about the value proposition from the marketers point-of-view, rather than the targeted smartphone user. How about we forget about us, and look at what’s in it for them?
Ads? You’re kidding me, right? How many people actually want to see ads, and are prepared to download an app and activate Bluetooth for the privilege? Or let me put it another way: When was the last time you clicked on a website banner ad?
Special Offers? Possibly. But unless there’s a compelling reason against it I can see the app being deleted the minute the visitor leaves the store.
It’s That’s E-word again
Sorry to keep banging the drum here, but it all comes down to the E-word: the experience the consumer is left with after the interaction. I’m sure by now you’ve seen plenty of badly-executed campaigns using QR codes as their entry point (if you haven’t, then Google “wtfqrcodes.com”).
The threat to beacon adoption is the same: ten-a-penny marketing executives jumping up and down about the tech, unable to restrain themselves, and failing to deliver any customer-perceived value.
Mobile marketing is the same as any other marketing: blast your audience with stuff you want to say (rather than what they want to hear) and you’re going to be ignored at best – despised at worst. Inform, educate and/or entertain, on the other hand, and you’ve got half a chance. Give a reason for your audience to allow you to message them and they’ll come – whether it’s iBeacons, QR codes or whatever else is around the corner.
In theory beacons have the advantage in that we as marketers have learned from our QR-code mistakes, have seen how not to do it, and will spend the time and effort to craft relevant mobile experiences for our audiences.
Just as with any marketing communications initiative, there has to be a strong and compelling reason for consumers to agree to accept such messaging. That will only come about because the perceived value of the message is outweighed by the tech that provides it. Such value has nothing to do with iBeacons, NFC, QR codes or anything else technology-related.
Maybe we should spend more time on making the journey as pleasant as possible, instead of wondering what color the car should be.
Of course there’ll be the occasional rotten apple (sic) in the barrel, but the danger will be that the majority of iBeacon interactions will be seen by audiences as little more than ‘QR Code 2.0.’
In other words nothing more than a tidal wave of spammy pitches, interruptive advertising, hyperbole – and irrelevance. The result will be that we’ll have blown it for everyone yet again, and we’ll only have ourselves to blame.
[EDIT] In July 2015 Google announced their own take on beacon tech called Eddystone (apparently a reference to the Eddystone Lighthouse, located in the south coast of the UK).
Strictly speaking Eddystone is a protocol for data exchange using beacon-type devices. However there are a few nice features not found in Apple’s version such as integrating with Google Now, and the support of multiple frame types (meaning that an Eddystone beacon isn’t restricted to performing just one task).
What’s more interesting is that while iBeacon is Apple’s own proprietary technology, Google have made Eddystone open source – meaning that developers don’t have to licence the tech into their apps. The way that beacon manufactures make their beacons, the beacon’s internal firmware, the software API – even the entire interface regarding how the beacon technology is presented to the user – is left totally up to developers.
While that could mean a more complete and compelling user experience, it could also see a raft of half-baked, ill-conceived beacon apps. Only time will tell…
[EDIT 2] Google has announced (February 2016) that native support for bluetooth beacons has been built-in to both iOS and Android versions of its Chrome browser. This is a major development in the ultimate success – or failure – of beacon technology. The issue until now is that potential customers only see a beacon-sourced message if they have the particular app installed on their phone. Building support at the browser level (assuming their use of the Chrome browser, of course) opens access immeasurably.
[EDIT 3] Apple’s iOS 11 operating system for iPhones and iPads has – finally – integrated the identification of QR codes at OS level. Here’s hoping Google does the same with Android sooner rather than later..
[EDIT 4] Android is dropping support for Nearby Notifications, which includes both Eddystone as well as physical bluetooth beacon notifications. It would seem that, as of 2018, beacons are pretty much dead.
Google’s “Eddystone”: a flexible, open source iBeacon fighter (Ars Technica)
Ideo Thinks Bluetooth Nearables Could Be A Game Changer (Fast Co.Design)
Beacon applications for the emergency services (Gigaom)
Beacon technology offers plenty of opportunities for retailers (Guardian UK)