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As a relative newcomer to the digital marketing world, I've decided to write a series of 'beginner's guides' to uncover what is meant by certain terms, trends and technological advances in digital; being both a travel guide and a personal investigation.

Here I’ll be answering the following questions: What are iBeacons? What are their practical applications? Are iBeacons better than similar existing technology?

All this in a tone of voice that has been described as both 'helpful' and 'not too rambling'.

Just a cursory glance around the internet and indeed our own blog, throws up a lot of phrases and acronyms surrounding the term iBeacons (NFC, BLE… iBeacons).

Let’s have a little wade through the jargon. Bear with me, I’ll try and do this as logically as possible.

iBeacon: iBeacon is a brand name. You know, like Sellotape or Hoover. A brand name that will likely fall into our general vocabulary as the popularised name for a certain piece of technology. 

iBeacon is a new technology developed by Apple, and here’s the spooky part: If you have an iOS7 enabled device, you already have an iBeacon.

Estimote Beacon

The above image is of a third-party beacon created by Estimote.

iBeacons improves and extends the functionality of the Location Services within your iOS7 device. 

Location Services: iOS software such as Maps, Camera, Safari and various other third party apps that use information from GPS, cellular and Wi-Fi to determine your location.

For instance the way Safari can recommend you restaurants to your local area, wherever you are, or the way that social media posts your rough location in any update you make.

If you wish to turn off Location Services for any reason, head to Settings>Privacy>Location Services where you can turn it on or off wholesale, or for individual apps.

iBeacon is based on, and is offered as an alternative to, an existing technology known as NFC.

NFC: Near field communication is the term used for the information exchange between two devices. It’s short-range, low powered and highly accurate way for your mobile phone to act as a credit or debit card, a loyalty card, a travel card and more.

For instance, Orange’s QuickTap that let’s you purchase sandwiches from Pret a Manger or EAT with just the tap of a smartphone.

You might as well just bin your wallet now. Maybe retain the photos of your children though. They’re all on Facebook? Fine, chuck it all in.

NFC is also helping to replace the hoary old QR code. NFC tags on adverts and posters in shops or in the street can offer you discounts or information based on your preferences by a tap of your phone.

Why hasn’t Apple included NFC in its newest iPhones?

Because it has iBeacons.

Why is iBeacon better then NFC? 

  • NFC requires the cooperation of banks and credit card companies to facilitate transactions. iBeacons just needs your Apple account. If you have an iPhone, you have an Apple account already.
  • NFC users have to tap their device next to a NFC tag in order to be pushed content but with iBeacons the content is pushed directly to the user, providing they have the brand’s app installed.
  • The range of NFC is small. The range of iBeacons is up to 50 metres without a loss of precision because iBeacons uses Bluetooth low energy (BLE) to place you within mere feet of a location.
  • Thanks to BLE, smartphone payments can be made even when the user's device does not have a network connection of its own (in a retail environment with no Wi-Fi or 3G signal). The smartphone just uses BLE to communicate.

BLE: an app can estimate your proximity to an iBeacon (a display or shop checkout) using a Bluetooth low energy (BLE) signal. BLE is a newer version of Bluetooth that knows no physical barriers and uses almost no battery life.

As Clair O’Neill wrote in her article a marketer’s guide to iBeacons and BLE it’s important to remember that it’s not just new iOS devices that implement this technology.

The majority of new devices entering the market, including the Nokia Lumias, Samsung Galaxy Nexus and the BlackBerry Z10 and Q10, among others, are all BLE compatible.

Other applications of iBeacons 

It’s not just the simplification and speed of payments that iBeacons is improving. It’s also improving the whole customer journey. 

As Joel Blackmore, senior innovation manager at Somo states in David Moth’s article what are iBeacons and why should marketers care.

Instead of limiting mobile payments to physically queuing up, tapping your device onto a till-point and then leaving, Apple has introduced a system that allows a user to be greeted on their device as they walk into a store, to be guided through the store's layout, to be shown product information and promotions and to pay without being in a queue (and without tapping anything). 

Clair O’Neill discussed the use of iBeacons in Major League Baseball in the US in her previously mentioned article. Micro-locations were created inside and outside of stadiums, where fans who had the specific app installed, could be sent relevant content. Team information, map of the stadium, a digital copy of their ticket and merchandise offers.

iBeacons are currently being used in bars and coffee shops to give customers access to digital magazines. London based Bar Kick gives access automatically to reading material as soon as a customer walks in, then locks access when they walk out, but offering a subscription opportunity for that particular magazine.

Wave goodbye to that nasty pile of magazines in the barbers or dentist's waiting room.

iBeacons could also be used to configure all of the smart devices in your home. According to Know Your Mobile, there is speculation that the current Apple TV can be set up via iBeacons with just a tap of your iOS7 device, instead of the laborious set-up process normally involved.

This technology could easily be integrated within all your next generation game consoles or various connected devices. It’s what the internet of things is all about.

In conclusion…

iBeacons are going to be massive. iPhone massive. For the simple reason that an estimated 170-190m iOS devices are currently capable of being iBeacons, with a further 51m iPhones and 26m iPads sold in Q1 2014

wicker man

iBeacons offer a more targeted message from marketers. Taking into account context, location, user behaviour and user profile. This will increase the likelihood of conversion as the customer’s attention will be caught just at the right point of the journey.

We already use our devices in-store for showrooming, so we’re more than used to this behaviour. iBeacons are a good way to combat the detrimental effects that showrooming presents. Retailers will be able to deliver targeted products accurately, along with store information and most importantly exclusive in-store offers and discounts.

It seems that iBeacons may be the perfect way to bring the online offline.

Further reading for beginners

During my first year at Econsultancy I’ve been making a point of writing beginner’s guides to any new terms or phrases I find particularly baffling, or that I might suspect other people may find baffling too. 

The following related articles should help clear up a few things… 

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 12 March, 2014 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

686 more posts from this author

Comments (13)

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Clare Evans

Great "dummies guide", Christopher; I definitely found it both helpful and not rambling!

I agree that iBeacon and similar technology has the potential to be massive. There are so many ways they can be used and so many every-day activities they can influence. (I wrote about how they could change the world of retail here if you're interested: http://greenroomretail.co.uk/blog/article/apple-ibeacon-retail)

However the skeptic / devil's advocate wonders if they could potentially meet the same fate as QR codes.

Like QR codes, customers need an app to use them (granted, the app of a retailer they probably already have installed) and people may be concerned about privacy and how their data is used.

I for one hope not as I can really see massive potential with them, and look forward to trying them out when and where I can.

over 2 years ago



Thanks. I'm just wondering if BLE is secure regarding paiement.

over 2 years ago


Mark Simpson

Hi Christopher (& Clare),

Both good articles.

What I would add to this is that NFC offers a slightly different angle to iBeacon technology and is relevant to a slightly different use case.

Therefore, I would challenge points 2 & 3 in the 'Why is iBeacon better then NFC? ' section and say that they should be maybe be placed in a 'Why are iBeacons different to NFC' section, because both of those could be perceived in different ways.

Say for example, a retailer has a shelf with multiple products on there (quite a common scenario). iBeacons can detect that you are looking at the shelf of products but NFC can enable the customer to engage voluntarily with the individual products on the shelf.

My view is that, if used in the right context, both of these technologies can play a part in successful marketing/retail/experiential initiatives. In the same way that QR codes can, if used in an appropriate and relevant context.


over 2 years ago

Simone Kurtzke

Simone Kurtzke, Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Robert Gordon University

Great article, Christopher! I'm very interested in this technology - not necessarily just in relation to marketing but on the whole I can see its potential as part of the internet of things, as you say.

I don't think they are going to go the way of QR codes - QR codes always felt a bit gimmicky, but this doesn't.

The Uni I work at (Robert Gordon Uni in Aberdeen) actually has a research project on the use of smart beacons in tourism. I attended a Digital Tourism showcase in February, DEMOfest North, where I met a guy who's been developing smart beacon technology (Neatebox) as part of this project, and they installed them at the National Museum of Flight in Edinburgh.

I really want to check them out! Not an Apple user so don't have iBeacon but I'm planning my visit to the Museum of Flight in the near future.

I wrote up a review of Smart Beacons / Neatebox on my blog (http://socialscotland.com/blog/digital-tourism/) giving three reasons why I think this tech is impressive.

We'll have to wait and see - but smart beacons might just be the next big thing...

over 2 years ago


Alex Blaney

I'll credit the design team at Estimote here, because you failed to in both the article and image used.

It's ok of course, I'm not being pedantic, but it's important as their beacons are not only beautifully designed but *open-source* which allows us innovators to drive this technology (and the wider world of marketing) forwards. That approach does need recognising.

Nice article nonetheless.

over 2 years ago

Ian Crawford

Ian Crawford, Marketing Manager at Holiday Hypermarket (part of TUI UK Ltd)Enterprise

Wow, I thought I'd clicked a link to eConsultancy but somehow I ended up on an Apple ad.

over 2 years ago


Joe Tarragano

I agree beacons will be massive, but the author skates over two huge issues. Firstly, your customer must have your app installed - have you made that happen today? Beacons (like wifi trilateration today) would enable much richer experiences, so an app download is more likely, but it's still a big hurdle.
Secondly, your consumer needs to have BLE on. That's a tiny number today. We will train them just as we trained them to have wifi on, but only when BLE enables enough value.
On the idea of frictionless payment and the MLB example, I love the ideal. But the reality is that retailers will not readily mess with their POS systems, so it'll be a long while yet before big retailers support this.
So I agree that there is much to look forward to, and this type of hype will help drive awareness and innovation (much of which we will see first in experiential environments, such as the Rubens House and Tulpenland examples).
But as always, operationalising this is what matters.

over 2 years ago

Clair O'Neill

Clair O'Neill, Marketing Executive at Good Energy

It's important to note that as of the iOS 7.1 update, mobile devices will still detect beacons even if the app is closed. Previously, the app had to be open, or running in the background, for relevant content to be pushed to the device through beacons. Users are still able to opt out of this through the location or Bluetooth settings.

With this new improvement, it's essential businesses are really thinking about the messages they are sending to consumer mobile devices. The aim is to add value to the user's day, not interrupt it.

Many of the organisations we speak to at Mubaloo are interested to know how beacon technology can enhance their mobile apps and in turn, enhance their business. We've recently launched MiBeacons http://mibeacons.com to help organisations deliver contextually relevant information to their customers.

Hi Ian,

Beacon technology actually works across a range of platforms & devices. iBeacons is just the term coined by Apple and also the term that most people recognise & will click on. Christopher has mentioned this in his article.

over 2 years ago


Max Antoni

Thanks for this good and helpful article.

I remain very skeptical about technologies that need multiple applications in order to come in handy for the user.

This kind of innovation is marketer's dreams but often customer's nightmares. However, beacons could represent the next big thing in payment solutions.

over 2 years ago


Jesse Westgate

Loads to consider, and some great points being raised in the comments that are being posted.

It is a really exciting technology opportunity that is evolving right now, no doubt it is going to be huge!

Check out beaconsense.co.uk and I welcome tech partners and customers alike to contact me

over 2 years ago


Mark Lambert

Christopher, it's a nice article and I like your writing style, but I think you may dismiss NFC just a little too quickly.

You describe it as a low energy technology, but it actually goes further than that and requires no stored energy in the 'tag'. So your credit card or that tag on the advertising poster do not need a battery, and that makes them both incredibly cheap and long-lasting.

There is also the requirement to either tap the reader and tag together, or at least hold them very close. Potentially a barrier to use, but (in addition to being required for the technology to work) it does represent a very visible security mechanism and an ability to direct the transaction that consumers feel comfortable with. They have had to present their reader (eg. phone) or tag (eg. phone, credit card) for the transaction to occur.

I am not saying that one is better than the other, just that NFC has a few merits that you may have missed.

over 2 years ago



Thank you for the article and others' comments.

Regarding "smartphone payments can be made even when the user's device does not have a network connection of its own", we have to be careful here. For customers in store, these will be cardholder present transactions. In Europe that's mostly likely means chip and PIN.

over 2 years ago


Matt Lovell, Head of Group Analytics & Digital Insight at Thomas Cook Group AirlinesEnterprise

Nice article.

As many of the above have mentioned though, I still think the biggest hindrance to them working is the need to have already previously downloaded an app to then be able to interact.

I can see the need for this as otherwise there is a real risk that we would be inundated with hundreds of irrelevant pushes for us to download data we don't want but I feel somewhere there is a need for there to be a simply way for users to be made aware of content and have an easy way to download said apps once they realise they are of value to them. Otherwise the numbers will always be small.

over 2 years ago

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