There’s an old surrealist gag by a comedian called Harry Hill that goes ‘Text messaging?! What’s wrong with a good old-fashioned chain of beacons, hmm?’

I think I’m remembering that right.

Anyway, it leads me to ask – are iBeacons a legitimate advancement in push communications, or are they overhyped?

To get the skinny on this subject, I caught up with former Econsultancy writer and social media man, Matt Owen, now head of inbound marketing at blueSense Networks, a beacon tech business.

At this moment in time, Matt, what are the most elegant, useful and promising use cases for beacons?

Well, it’s very different for each industry.

For example, a hospital might decide to use beacons to track expensive medical devices as they move around the building. That way you minimize loss and risk, but you also have faster access in an emergency.

For an airport, it could be a use case for security, but also for guiding passengers to their gates, or automatically printing boarding passes to avoid queuing.

I’m a big fan of passive monitoring – tracking user flow and using that data to optimize spaces – rather than interruptive marketing.

It’s important to understand that beacons allow you to add a data layer to the real world, but driving people to check their screens all the time probably isn’t the best thing to do in a physical environment, so you need to focus on experience.

Anything that makes my trip less stressful is useful.

Early iBeacon trial from Virgin Atlantic

ibeacon trial

Do you see the future of beacons as a passive technology or one that initiates experiences?

Beacons are inherently passive. I think there’s a bit of a misunderstanding as many marketers assume the beacon itself delivers content to users.

It’s really just a relay that passes information on when it is asked for, so my thinking is that they are best used to supply information when a customer specifically asks for it.

That said, it’s a lot like Google Now, answering questions before you need to ask them. As with all things, the real key is in that relevance.

Couponing has been the major use case so far for beacons because it is the most obvious, but as we’ve seen from the rest of the internet, interruptive ads aren’t effective, so the messaging needs to be useful and relevant.

For example, I wouldn’t mind my car getting a message about the number of parking spaces available without needing to ask.

Couponing from the MLB

mlb

So, is retail a bit of a red herring? Do we need distractions in store?

I think we need to get beyond the urge to sell, but that’s been true of all types of marketing over the years.

If you can genuinely add to the in-store experience, then retail is an excellent use case.

Some of the examples we’ve seen have been stores using them to direct customers to click-and-collect points.

There is also an obvious case for joining up online and offline customer profiles here, which is probably where retail would see the most value overall.

What is the bigger challenge – data, infrastructure or creative?

Because it’s such an early-stage tech right now, it is a mixture of all three. We’ve certainly seen lots of creative uses.

The example I keep going back to is the Barbican in London, which has beacons that invite visitors to explore the space and learn about the history of the building in a non-linear way.

It’s creative and really makes you appreciate the space you are in on a deeper level.

Edgelands at the Barbican

edgelands

Data is actually fairly easy, as nothing can be used without express permission from the customer, which again means you are kind of forced to add a lot of value in return.

I do think there is still a lot of education to be done here though, which is why we’ve been offering consulting to our customers, to help them think about what they are providing for customers and how it helps them. 

It’s actually very aligned with the focus on CX which marketing is increasingly adopting.

Infrastructure is evolving – I do see a time when beacons are installed in the same way telephone lines or internet cabling is now.

Actually, telco’s are uniquely positioned to take advantage of this, as they have physical locations as well as interests in mobile, online and more.