Beacons were introduced to the world in a blaze of glory back in 2013. At the time, they were being hailed as the saviour of personalised proximity marketing at scale. Fast-forward to 2015 and I can't remember one instance where I have received a single notification while out and about.
That could all be about to change though if I plan to travel in a black cab or London bus at some point in the not too distant future following the announcement that 500 buses and 4,000 taxis are being kitted out with beacons. I'm first in line for some irrelevant messaging.
Of course, for this to work then I must have installed the application of the advertiser who has paid the media owner to target me and have my Bluetooth turned on. With millions of apps available these days you don't need me to do the maths of how likely these two occurrences are likely to be.
One of the biggest claims for beacons was always contextual relevancy, however in practice I've seen very little of this. The best use cases so far have come from a number of museums across the world, using beacons to engage further with visitors as they move around the exhibitions, enabling them to learn further about what's in front of their eyes.
A highly creative use for beacons was developed as part of the UN’s International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action at the New Museum in New York City, which hosted an exhibit that used Beacons to simulate a virtual minefield and let anyone experience the danger of land mines.
There have also been some very practical use cases in airports across the world, bringing together the whole process and keeping you abreast of changes in circumstances such as your flight being delayed between check-in and arriving at the gate – a great opportunity for airports to keep you shopping.
On the flip side, the logistical challenges of installing and maintaining a beacon network on the face of it seem small and the selling points are strong:
- They are small and can be hidden away
- They don’t (always) require mains power and will run off a watch battery for up to two years
- They’re pretty cheap. Around £25 each
However, once you scratch the surface you begin to uncover some pretty big questions:
- What if you are a retailer with a decent sized estate with shops spanning hundreds of square meters. Just how many will you need and how much are you going to be spending?
- Will I constantly be replacing batteries, stolen or broken beacons?
- How do I update content if these are un-networked, standalone devices?
To avoid the last two points you will need to have your beacons connected and plugged into a mains source. It also means connecting them to the network and managing them via a content management system. For many organisations this in itself is going to present a big IT challenge that presents many different issues: security, access etc.
This account from the team at The Brooklyn Museum documenting their experiences in installing 150 beacons in a 500,000 square foot building explores the challenges in depth.
These challenges and others besides are contributing to the lack of take up in retail across the UK. There has been some trials from the likes of Tesco, Waitrose and John Lewis. The technology has the potential to create that utopia of a personalised customer experience but the reality is that joining up all the data dots along with installing the hardware is a long way off.
With beacons, the challenge remains to create compelling use cases, adding to the experience and being contextually aware of where you are, who you are and what your history is with that app or brand. If they just become a network used to distribute intrusive and irrelevant messaging as you go about your day, then the great hope that beacons delivered in 2013 will die a very quick death.
Dan Beasley is CEO at Puzzle London