So 2014 may be the year of the ramp-up to the year of the Beacons. Ever since Apple issued its iBeacon specs for hardware makers to adopt, the rush is on to get retailers, venues and other locations wired and ready for opt-in habits that consumers aren’t even imagining yet. Okay -- so let's just say 2014 is the ramp-up to a year of actual deployments in 2015 and the adoption of new behaviors at a date to be determined.
You need at least two things before habituation takes off. First, this needs a lot more than one-off spot solutions in select retail locations. Second, you need apps and retail brands that people already trust to serve them well to ease the user into these proximity solutions. The largest shopping mall network of Bluetooth proximity units I know of -- Mobiquity -- makes a major play today to satisfy both requirements. The company is already present in 100 malls in the U.S. covering the top 17 DMAs. In total, this accounts for 3,000 retailers and 15,000 storefronts. CMO Jim Meckley tells me the real estate sees 120 million shopper visits a month. The company upgraded its existing units to BT 4.0 and with it the capabilities and standards of iBeacon.
Mobiquity is releasing its SDK to developers so that retailers and other app makers can leverage the Bluetooth LE beacon network. At the very least these platforms can be used as simple geo-fences to wake up a relevant app and surface it for a user when they are in proximity of a store. But Meckley says the company is hoping for a good deal more from opening up the SDK and network to developers.
“It is not about delivering a coupon,” he says. The beacons will allow retailers to understand key location-based data points like the duration of a stay, exiting or entering postures. “They can overlay with that what they already know about the demo or what they know about the people using their app to guide what should be a very rich and interactive experience.” Otherwise, he warns, users will opt out quickly from simply being pestered.
He argues that simple geotargeting is not enough. “It is about geo-behaviors and combining the context of locations with audiences that frequent those locations. Location-based advertising has to be combined with some additional intelligence about the people you are talking to.”
On one level, this sort of indoor location data can make ad targeting itself more precise. But going deeper, he sees retailers being able to combine a person’s presence in a location with the richer personal data that the merchant has about the customer. Walking into a store may trigger an app event, but it is in knowing that person’s purchase history or stated preferences that the real, meaningful interaction can happen.
While a number of third parties like Shopkick, InMarket and many WiFi providers are working with specific retail locations and chains, Mobiquity’s play is in breadth and working first and foremost in the common spaces. Still, they have only a slice of a much larger mall market that is currently shopping for solutions -- as are the other links in the shopping chain.
I am not sure how much of a difference it makes whether you trigger someone with a cellular network entering a mall parking lot as they enter the mall or in more granular interactions when they are in the store. These are all capabilities that still depend wholly on consumer willingness to engage at any level via opting in and staying in once their phone starts binging and buzzing them every time they go shopping. This is all very much contested terrain -- both physically in the spaces themselves and psychologically, in whether we want to interact with commercial entities this way. Suddenly there is a veritable air war around and in retail over who will control the ether: malls, retailers, third-party shopping apps, etc. This could become as fractured as the mobile payment space. But ultimately, this is also a test involving intimacy. How many of us want brands of any kind this close to our physical activity? My guess is that consumer responsiveness will be as fragmented as the solutions. But the value proposition cannot be trivial.
I think Meckley’s warning about getting this right the first time and providing a real enhanced experience -- not an irritation -- is well placed. Now you are playing not only with people’s handsets, but with their personal sense of space and place. Marketers will only get the opportunity to screw up this opportunity once.