iBeacon Hits The Mall (And Why Shoppers Won't Worry About Being Tracked)


Bluetooth LE: Retail is the Top Story

Retail was the top story for Bluetooth LE beacons in 2013. Which frankly isn’t saying very much: it’s hard to remember that iBeacon technology is only a few months old.

When Apple unlocked Bluetooth LE capabilities in its phones and devices with the launch of iOS7 you’d expect it to take some time for developers, brands and retailers to figure out how best to use proximity-based technologies.

But with its massive infrastructure in loyalty programs, payments and point-of-sale and a battle with both off and online a competitors (especially in the holiday season) retailers were a natural first fit.

With Apple eating its own applesauce and launching beacons in its stores, it came in just after Macy’s in the battle for press awareness (although others had been there first).

Sonic Notify Inks Deal With Major Malls

Just in time for the holidays, Sonic Notify gave a Christmas gift to itself and announced a deal with Rouse Properties to bring beacons to 34 of its malls.

Sonic Notify (which also once operated under the Adomaly brand) creates beacons and back-end management tools that support both Android and Apple devices by including an audio signal in addition to Bluetooth LE. This allows older Android phones to ‘pick up’ the beacon signal.

The deal will bring its beacons to your local mall and allow retailers and advertising partners to instantly send personalized greetings, product recommendations and in-store discounts and coupon offers to consumers in precise locations in the mall. The technology overlays content onto an inaudible signal that can be unobtrusively played over an in-store PA system or can be delivered through audio and Bluetooth via the beacons.

Rouse Properties might not be a household name, but their portfolio of malls includes 34 malls in 21 states encompassing 23.4 million square feet.

Will Consumers Be Creeped Out by iBeacons?

But there’s always a counter-narrative isn’t there? And in this case, it’s the idea that consumers will be ‘creeped out’ by the presence of beacons as they go shopping.

Pando Daily summarizes the sentiment:

But there’s still more to be done and no one has yet emerged as the definitive must-have app in this space.  Also  looming in the background is the privacy question: In many ways we’re just beginning to figure out the nuances of protecting, and communicating about, privacy in the online world and it’s likely to take equally as long, if not longer, to sort out the privacy question offline.

Most people feel far less comfortable with their offline movements being tracked than their online movements, according to a recent Pew Report, which indicates that while many smart phone users want to use their phone to navigate, the majority do not want their phone’s navigational capabilities to be used to target them.

They go on to outline the most compelling argument for how beacons will be a ‘win’ – namely, they’ll deliver value to both the retailer and the consumer. But the key takeaway is simple: you need to design a winning experience.

iBeacons Leave Power in the Hands of the Consumer

I’ve long been an advocate for a conscious and transparent consideration for privacy and identity protection in the digital age. If anything, I stand on the side of tighter protections for the consumer because too much power has been aggregated in the hands of too few – and in a way that lacks transparency and as a result can lead to an erosion of trust.

So I’m the first to acknowledge that data in the wrong hands can be a dangerous thing.

But iBeacons and Bluetooth LE are a pretty good place to start when it comes to proximity-based experiences, marketing and data collection primarily because they require multiple layers of opt-in from a consumer. You need to download an app, turn Bluetooth on, and turn location services on in order to start ‘communicating’ with beacons.

By leaving a lot of power in the hands of the consumer, beacons have a fair shot compared to other digital technologies or sites where the consumer isn’t even aware that their Facebook profile, for example, is being cross-tabulated with websites that they visit that have nothing to do with the social network.

This doesn’t mean that your iBeacon experiences WON’T be cross-tabulated with other data – but at least you’ll have a very clear path to opting in to a proximity experience.

Three Other Reasons Beacons Won’t Creep Us Out

As Pando Daily points out, it’s all about value: if consumers perceive they’re getting some kind of value from a ‘beaconized’ experience they’ll stick with it. But there are other reasons why consumers won’t care, and some of them aren’t that obvious if you only have a peripheral understanding of the iBeacon experience.

Here are three of the less obvious reasons why consumers won’t care:

Most Consumers Won’t Know That There’s a Beacon

If you’re creeped out by mapping your location you’ll continue to be creeped out. But for consumers who have turned on the mapping and location functions of Twitter, Facebook and the thousands of apps that use it, beacons won’t make much of a difference. And mainly they won’t make a difference because consumers won’t know that they’re there.

Your app that already uses ‘location’ (which a consumer associates with mapping and GPS) might become more useful, but a consumer won’t generally recognize the reason that its become more useful. They’ll just think of it as a technology that already exists but that has gotten slightly better.

Most Beacon Experiences Will Be Ambient

In part, the technical problems with beacons and with the software APIs that Apple uses to connect to them are a consumer advantage. For example, these challenges result in app behavior where a lock screen or ‘push’ message can be delayed 15 seconds to several minutes. As a result of these problems with app behavior, developers are unlikely to push specific messages tied to specific locations.

Imagine trying to send a push message in front of the candy display (“Enjoy a Treat!) but delays with the app cause it to get pushed in front of the cough syrup aisle.

As a result, developers will create experiences that are generally specific to context but not so precise to create a crappy user experience. What might be a flaw in responsiveness to Bluetooth might end up dialing back some of the ‘creep’ factor of precision-based proximity.

There Will Be Visual Triggers

But even when proximity is exact – which it can be if you really work hard at triangulation and developing the rules in your app’s code, the experience won’t just be guided by apps and beacons but by other visual triggers in the environment itself. One of the challenges in designing a beacon experience is triggering the use of the app by the consumer – and there’s nothing better than a small sign or visual signal in the environment itself to help make that happen.

The use of visuals, shelf-talkers, point-of-sale signs and other triggers in the physical environment will give the user a sense of control over their experience. Rather than feeling creeped out, they’ll feel like they’re active participants in the experience because transparency won’t just be achieved through the app or beacons but through the physical space itself.

What Are Your Rules for iBeacons?

But I’d be curious to hear your approach to these issues: do you ‘hide’ beacons or make them visible? Are you using tools and displays in the physical world to prompt user actions? And in a world of Google Now and Facebook location tracking, do you think the majority of consumers will care one way or the other that we can now personalize the digital layer of physical space as much as we do online?

It’s a brave new world of beacons….and I think we underestimate how brave consumers will be in embracing new experiences that deliver them value, delight and utility.

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4 thoughts on “iBeacon Hits The Mall (And Why Shoppers Won't Worry About Being Tracked)

  1. Very good and clear article. This gives me some tools to discuss with my potential clients the implementation of beacons in the retail.


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