6 things marketers need to know about beacons

Bluetooth 'beacons' are a simple way for marketers to communicate with customers in physical locations, but the platforms and infrastructure behind the tiny wireless sensors can be quite complex. Here's a quick guide to the basics of beacons.

Credit: Google Developers Blog

In today's noisy culture, it's increasingly difficult for enterprise marketers to reach customers and prospects, much less prompt them to take desired actions. However, this complex challenge appears to have at least one relatively simple solution: Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) "beacons." Also known as "proximity beacons," the inexpensive devices transmit relevant, targeted messages and information to nearby mobile devices.

Retailers are among the earliest BLE beacon adopters. A beacon-equipped department store could, for example, send special offers on baggage to customers as they enter, proceed through, or linger in the luggage department. Drug store chain Rite Aid recently announced a rollout of proximity beacons in each of its 4,500 U.S. stores, reportedly making it the largest retail deployment to date, according to ZDNet.

Beacons aren't just for marketers from brick-and-mortar retailers, either. They're also being deployed in sports and concert arenas, airports, trade shows and conferences (such as CES), schools, and museums that hope to engage and learn more about their customers. In many cases, the goal behind beacons is to increase customer engagement and, thus, sales and loyalty. Enterprises use beacons for logistics, as well, and some hospitals use the devices to improve patient care or track expensive assets.

ABI Research estimates suggest 3.9 million BLE beacons shipped globally in 2015, and the company projects the type of enterprises that adopt the technology in 2016 will continue to diversify, according to Patrick Connolly, ABI's principal analyst. Here are the basics of BLE beacons that every CMO and their marketing teams need to know. 

1. What exactly are BLE beacons? 

Beacons are small, battery-powered, always-on devices that use BLE technology to transmit signals to devices, such as smartphones and tablets, within a range of about 300 feet.

Beacons are one-way transmitters; they detect nearby devices in order to send them messages, but the target devices don't send information back to the beacons. Beacons are like lighthouses, according Patrick Leddy, CEO and founder of mobile marketing firm Pulsate, who spoke on the subject in a whiteboard video. "They send out a signal. They're unaware of themselves and any other devices around them ... They're just sending out these BLE packets and saying 'Hey, I'm here, see me, take action if you want." 

Multiple beacons can be positioned around an area, such as inside a store or airport, to broadcast relevant information to portable devices within their proximity. Mobile device owners can then react to, engage with, or use the information for indoor, turn-by-turn navigation and store discounts, among other things.

Beacons can also be used to track devices, and their users, when in range. For instance, marketers can use beacons that connect to mobile devices to determine how long customers linger in a specific store aisle.

2. Are there different beacon platforms?

The two biggest players in the beacon market are Apple and Google, and they both have their own standardized BLE beacon implementations. 

Apple's iBeacon was the first standardized BLE beacon platform. The company introduced the technology during its summer 2013 Worldwide Developers Conference, when it added iBeacon support to iOS 7. The iBeacon platform lets developers build mobile apps that can receive transmissions, such as location-aware notifications, from iBeacon-compatible devices. 

On Dec. 6, 2013, Apple installed iBeacons in all of its 254 U.S. retail stores. Shoppers with the Apple Store app installed on their Bluetooth-enabled, iOS devices with active location services can receive in-store notifications about deals, new products and more.

In July 2015, Google announced Eddystone, its BLE beacon technology. (A U.K. lighthouse inspired the name). Eddystone is similar to iBeacon, but unlike Apple's implementation, Google's is open source, and it's available on GitHub.

Both iOS and Android users can receive messages sent via the iBeacon and Eddystone platforms, according to Errett Kroeter, vice president of marketing for Bluetooth SIG. Marketers "don't need to worry about buying an iBeacon versus an Eddystone beacon," he says, because they work across the two platforms. 

However, some differences between Apple's and Google's implementations do exist. Most notably, Google's beacon platform can transmit URLs to mobile devices, which can then be opened in a mobile browser, Kroeter says. This feature coincides with Google's philosophy of the mobile browser as an all-purpose app. Apple's iBeacon implementation, as of now, interacts only with mobile apps on users' smartphones.

3. Who makes beacons, and how much do they cost?

Google and Apple don't make their own beacons. A variety of vendors manufacture and sell beacons based on one or both implementation standards, including Aruba, Estimote, Gimbal, Kontakt.io and Radius Networks.

Beacons aren't expensive. Gimbal Proximity Beacons cost between $5 and $30, for example. Prices differ due to beacon signal range, types of batteries used, typical battery life (which can be several years), and other factors.

Facebook for Business makes BLE beacons available for free to businesses with Facebook pages. The beacons are specifically designed to trigger Facebook Place Tips and deliver information about the businesses to users' smartphones.

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