Beacons of hope?

Ian Malone launched his mobile communications agency We Are Apps four years ago and has built up an enviable client list that includes Ford, Avon and Cadbury’s. But now he has shifted his attention to beacon technology and is about to launch a new beacon management system, Geemo, that will make managing UK-wide beacon campaigns as easy as flicking a light switch.

The BBC comes in for much criticism in this day and age. Why is there such a lack of high quality programming? Why are staff getting such huge salaries? And what is the future for the licence fee, are all questions regularly debated. But if you have a new product or service to publicise, getting your face on to the BBC to talk about that product or service can pay dividends.When I meet Ian Malone, the founder of London-based mobile agency We Are Apps, he is fresh from an appearance on the BBC, during which he was interviewed about beacon technology and what it could mean for the humble smartphone wielding consumer in the years ahead. Malone launched his agency We Are Apps in March 2010 after being digital creative director at Souk. The catalyst for his agency was the acquisition of his first smartphone and the sudden realisation that these small electronic devices were going to fundamentally change the way people interact, shop, bank, research, book holidays, communicate and generally exist forever, practically overnight. We Are Apps was launched to ensure that clients were prepared for this huge change in consumer behaviour and has since gone on to work with clients including Ford, Avon, Cadbury, and Penguin, helping them to develop their mobile platforms. But never one to be left behind, Malone and his team of developers at We Are Apps have now turned their attentions towards beacon technology and the agency is on the brink of launching its own beacon technology management platform, Geemo, in the coming weeks.For those who have failed to pick up on the buzz surrounding beacon technology, it is a proximity marketing tool that allows brands with physical locations – retail stores, visitor attractions, sports venues, transport hubs, etc – to directly target consumers with digital messages, information and offers directly to their smartphone based on their geographical location. So, in effect, if you were walking past a Costa Coffee shop and you had the Costa Coffee app on your smartphone, the beacon positioned inside the store would detect your device and automatically send you a relevant offer or voucher.Having the opportunity to talk about this new technology on the BBC has already given Malone and Geemo a head start and got people talking about what is possible, but as Malone says there is still a lot of uncertainty about what this type of technology will mean for brands, and how they can best harness its power without alienating potential consumers.He says: “It's still really early days. You've got to remember that for most people, beacons really only came on their radar in December of last year when the first case studies from the US started up. Obviously mobile teams have known about it for quite some time. In terms of sales and marketing and the guys responsible for digital inside retailers, it's really only starting to come through now. There is an adoption hill to climb in terms of people understanding that beacons aren’t the Bluetooth that used to drain your phone’s battery. This is Bluetooth Low Energy.”So, what exactly will Geemo allow brands and organisations to do? “The first thing that we realised when we looked into the technology is that brands need to manage and track the campaigns that they deliver via beacons,” explains Malone. “Geemo essentially offers brands three things. If you're a chain of 300 coffee shops and you have bought 300 beacons, one to go on the front door of each store, first of all you've got to activate those beacons, so Geemo offers an app for doing that. Then you've got to integrate the software into your existing mobile app; we've got a software development kit (SDK) that helps you to do that. And then we've got our beacon management system (BMS), so that's really the core of the product. “Any phone that's carrying your app that comes near one of your stores, may get a message or an alert saying something like ‘if you pop in to our shop in the next 30 minutes, there's a free Danish waiting for you if you buy any coffee’ or something like that.”And that is ultimately the exciting thing about beacons – they give brands and organisations the opportunity to target consumers very accurately with messages and offers based on their exact location at any given moment in time. It’s real-time marketing that knows where you are, what you are doing and ultimately what you might be more inclined to buy at that specific moment in time.And as Malone explains, it’s not simply about offers and discounts. “There are all sorts of different applications for this technology. For instance, museums can use it to release content as you walk around an exhibition; or a leisure park might want to use it so that as a person is walking past a ride, the beacon will let them know via the system exactly what the waiting time is and maybe even put an offer in front of them to pitch up at the front of the queue for an extra fiver. “It's about understanding exactly where you are and then serving you relevant information and I think that's the key to it really. Once you understand the context of somebody's location and what's going to be really useful to them, it is at that point when it can get really interesting.”Another attractive aspect of beacon technology is its relatively low-cost installation. At around just £20-£30 per beacon, they are about the size of a match box and battery operated; a nation-wide chain of 300 shops could equip all their stores for less than £10,000.Malone says: “Price is where it gets even better really, because unlike if you're installing an NFC contactless payment system or communication system, which could costs thousands, an individual beacon is as low as £20. Arguably you'll probably spend more with your developer getting them to integrate the offering into the mobile app itself than you would on the beacons. Then we have a subscription to the Geemo BMS as well, which is paid on a very affordable monthly basis.Geemo may be in its early days, but already Malone has spent a lot of time readjusting his own mindset from that of being just an agency that just delivers services to clients to one that is also a product developer. So, what does the future hold for Geemo?Already Malone says the BBC appearance has developed some interest in the new technology and they are working with a number of agencies and clients on trials at the moment. He also has a road map of new features that will be rolled out once Geemo is up and running. Time will tell just how big the impact Beacon technology will have, but believe us, it is coming to a coffee shop near you.

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.