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Advertisers mature beacons efforts to sharpen precision marketing

Beacons aren’t really about customer acquisition in-stores for many brands now. For Coca-Cola, Kraft and Papa John’s, the potential for beacons lies in their ability to optimise the customer experience through precision marketing rather than just simple point-of-purchase activation.

Beacons were the standout technology at this year’s SXSW, dominating numerous sessions and sparking debates online over its future use. From shelves being able to talk to phones to SoundCloud playlists based on zones in the home, the most popular demos centred on removing friction from a customer experience.

It is emblematic of how beacons, once hailed by early adopters as the performance tool to boost in-store sales, are increasingly being seen by those same advertisers in a context, content and value filter. The growth of proximity marketing has made marketers more willing to connect their name to the new technology.

Coca-Cola has pinned its red and white stripes to the beacons mast with a test in Atlanta but admits it is just a precursor to something bigger once it has worked out how to convince people to sign up for beacons messages. There is no disputing the value of beacons data to marketers but getting people to opt in and share it still remains a challenge no brand has yet been able to do at scale.

Coke will give it a go though once it has assessed the beacons test, which sees it serving ads to an app so that every time a person walks past a specific restaurant or vendor they are encouraged to buy the drink. The company knows this isn’t a sustainable marketing tool though sees the data as crucial in the assessment of its mobile app strategy, that could see it axe apps like “Spin the Coke” and “Coke Cheers” in favour of one global app.

Zoe Levine, senior digital marketing manager at Coke, said for beacons to work, the business needs an “app that people want to download” and “use on a ongoing basis”. The wider narrative is that precision marketing, whether through beacons or another technology, is where Coke is pushing its mobile in the hope it will elevate its shopper marketing investments.

“We’re storytellers but we’re also trying to get people to buy Coca-Cola. We’re not necessarily testing beacons on how to tell that story [yet],” Levine said on a SXSW panel.

“Beacons are dumb. It’s basically a USB drive. It’s the experience that you put on top of the beacon that makes it so powerful. If I walk into a stadium and get a message saying Zoe ‘download this app and then do this’. I’m like no way, I don’t want to do that. Just give me what you’re going to give me.”

Inside stadiums is where Papa John’s thinks beacons could be worthwhile. The pizza maker has stayed away from the technology so far and yet sees promise in it powering an in-stadium ordering service so that spectators of the NFL matches it sponsors can have their order waiting for them at home.

Speaking on the same panel, Jim Ensign, vice president of global digital marketing at Papa John’s, said: “We see beacons as an opportunity to continue the storytelling and engagement for Papa John’s and the NFL. Beacons would be really interesting because you’re communicating with people in the right environment that is still transparent driven."

Kraft shares the enthusiasm but has no immediate plans to run the technology into its marketing. Concepts are being worked on at the moment with the food maker saying it wants to somehow build them into its Oscar Mayer “Weinermobile” to elevate the amount of online content it can pull from the experiential stunt.

The limited depth and breadth of case studies on beacons has led many industry observers to dismiss it as the latest buzzword set to fade into obscurity. However, the growing involvement of publishers and expanding ecosystem around proximity marketing suggests the technology could be here for to stay.

Unilever has been experimenting with using publishers' apps instead of its own to host its beacons ads as a way of circumventing the challenge of convincing people to opt-in to the content.

Meanwhile, Norwegian start-up Unacast has signed seven partners including Total Communicator Solutions to create what it claims is the largest supplier of proximity data in the world - PROX. Using proximity platforms like Spark Compass, Unacast wants PROX to eventually grow into a platform that lets marketers seen customer journeys as they flit between on and offline channels.

Kjartan Slette, co-founder and chief operating officer of Unacast, said: “Brand are naturally careful about how to connect their name to a new technology, and we recommend that brands and retailers think through how they use this amazing opportunity. Simply sending push notifications based on location left and right is a missed opportunity.”

Advertisers have made no secret of their struggles to make mobile marketing relevant to people. Beacons, with all the customer data it promises, could give proximity the credentials to make mobile ads relevant.

Featured by The Drum