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Beacons tipped to usher in shift to more intelligent retargeting for retail advertisers

Marketers' eagerness to fit beacons everywhere they can has meant many have got ahead of themselves but there are some who are looking to make progress by retargeting online ads to shoppers based on items they have been looking at in-store.

For every full-store rollout or test pilot, advertisers’ beacons focus almost always revolves around pushing location-based messages to shoppers’ smartphones while they shop. It has left many of those same brands stymied as to how and where the technology fits within their advertising arsenals, a point reflected in the reluctance of many to commit more resources to the channel.

Mondelez and Coca-Cola have both told The Drum that they are still testing beacons almost a year on from when they first backed the tool. Bombarding people with push notifications as they browse aisles offers them no clear benefits and so many advertisers have been content to invest limited funds in the channel to prove to retailers that they are willing to innovate in the hope of securing more display media in-stores.

Fortune favours the bold, but it also favours the smart. And for smart marketers the advent of cross-channel marketing is changing how they use beacons to bolster targeting, audience segmentation and measurement, thus making their media buying smarter.

Unilever’s initial efforts to glean offline shopper data for mobile targeting this month exemplifies the role the technology could play. Shoppers who visit a Knorr-branded food truck sampling its latest soup are retargeted with a mobile ad the next time they fire up the app for Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet.

Offline data has not been a part of mainstream advertising before and Unilever is exploring how it can be used to target advertising across devices from mobile to tablet to TV. This is how marketers can avoid creating another silo of customer data at a time when personalisation across the entire customer journey is becoming more critical to success.

A spokesman for Unilever’s start-up incubator Foundry, which is leading its beacons tests, told The Drum at the time of the Knorr initiative’s launch: “We have decided to take a fundamentally different approach to using beacon technology.

“Beacons provide a great opportunity to link a consumer’s offline behaviour to an online digital experience. Our approach to piloting this technology is more about understanding our target audience from a branding perspective.”

Despite the potential, there is little evidence to suggest that the approach will impact the vast amount of low interest, high frequency FMCG purchases.

Rob Sellers, director of Grey Shopper, said: “There’s more value in beacons for retailers [than FMCG companies] because whichever retailer has the best customer data has the upper hand in terms of negotiating the supplier relationship.

“I can see a lot more use for brands looking to target supporters in stadiums over the course of a season. The automotive industry could also benefit because there’s a lot of online and offline experiences with brands, as people are researching various models over years before visitng the showroom to see the car or book a test-drive.”

The prospect of using beacons in sports stadiums is where some believe much of the early adoption will take place. A more robust wi-fi infrastructure across outtdoor venues in the US has already made the prospect of using beacons for retargeting an attractive outlet for those looking to reach fans.

Chris Pirrone, general manager for sports digital properties at newspaper USA Today, said beacons could provide the “missing link” in advertising by providing analysis around the impact that marketing campaigns are having in driving foofall to stores.

For example, a sportswear maker could retarget customers weeks after they have watched a football match live, while they are viewing sports-related content on their phones, tablets or desktop. A premium publisher could then go beyond standard ad units and produce customised, branded content.

The adtech industry is a fragmented marketplace. To effectuate the vision of tying in- store shopping with online marketing at scale there needs to be transparency. Consumers must believe their data will be protected to opt in and advertisers have to be confident that industry best practices are being followed and that their consumers are safe.

Achieving this transparency is a staged process. One in which some companies are looking to make headway by creating global platforms for proximity service providers (PSPs) that let brands and retailers retarget consumers online based on offline behaviour.

Norwegian start-up Unacast is hoping to do just. Founded by the executive management team of streaming services Tidal and Wimp - which was sold to Jay-Z last month for $56m - their latest venture is billed as a network whereby advertising, media and publishing industries can access all of the data from one repository. The data is owned by the retailer and sporting venue and if they want to share this with brands then it can from one central hub, sold at a premium.

Thomas Walle Jensen, co-founder and chief executive of Unacast , said: “One API is better than many to deliver the scale an advertiser needs. A network provides this. We see a green field of opportunity in enabling advertisers to better manage and optimise their digital ROI with offline activity we track through beacons. It’s at an early stage, but the data we can now supply back in to retargeting the customer online based on their offline behavior was simply never previously available.

“Over time and working with our partners, we see Unacast being able to deliver targeted video advertising across devices from mobile to tablet to TV. This is how the advertising around large scale media events such as the Super Bowl could be greatly optimised.”

A failure to evolve beyond pushing locally relevant messages via beacons has rendered the technology an underappreciated and misunderstood part of many advertisers’ arsenals. However, the rise of beacons connecting real and virtual customer behaviour in 2015 could prescribe a more cost-effective alternative for marketers.

Featured by The Drum