Depending on your upbringing, ‘fencing’ may mean something very different to you than other people.

If you’re very posh it’s the practice of non-lethally poking masked opponents with pointy sticks. If you’re slightly less posh, but still had a garden to run around in as a child, then it’s the practice of putting up a wooden division so that neighbours can’t just wander onto your property unsolicited.

And if you’re even less posh... it’s the practice of knowingly buying stolen property for the purpose of selling on at a later date.

I probably fall somewhere between the latter two.

However, perhaps you come from a long line of digital innovators and early adopters (your granddad developed the first beeper for instance) and the term fencing means more about GPS to you then anything else. If that’s the case then you probably needn’t read any further.

Then again you came this far...

I should explain one quick thing first... RFID. 

RFID stands for radio frequency identification. It’s a type of technology that uniquely identifies an object (or person) wirelessly in order to transfer data.

One of its most effective uses in ecommerce is in providing an alternative to the bar code. RFID requires no direct contact with the object, nor does it need to even need to ‘see’ it.  

It can also be used in animal tagging (cattle on farms, pigeon racing), schools (monitor attendance and flag-up unauthorised entrance) and libraries (they know you still have The Tiger Who Came to Tea).

Geofencing uses RFID or GPS (you probably already know what that is) to define a geographical boundary, or a virtual barrier. 

A virtual barrier that when you penetrate it (with your enabled mobile device) triggers an action or a notification.

Geofences can be a simple circumference around a specific point on a map…

Or a geofence can be drawn around a specific shape or area…

Images courtesy of Position Logic.

Possible uses:

  • Deliveries: customers waiting for a package could be notified via text message when the delivery vehicle enters a certain radius of their home.
  • Retail: consumers who walk within a certain distance of a shop can be notified with special offers and incentives to swing by and visit.
  • Security: mobile tablets that belong to an organisation that deals with sensitive information could be programmed to become disabled when the leave the location.
  • Restaurants: information on daily specials can be delivered to a customer who is in range of your restaurant.
  • Cinemas: film showing times could be delivered direct to nearby regular customers. 

What’s the difference between geofencing and beacons or NFC?

If you’ve already read reports about beacons, iBeacons and other similar near-field communications (NFC) technology you may be wondering right now quite what the difference is.

A beacon is a transmitter that can deliver targeted information to a user’s mobile device whenever they go near it with an enabled app.

Apple has introduced its own version, named iBeacons, to its own stores. Customers are greeted on their iPhone as they walk through the door, are shown product information, offered promotions and the ability to pay without queuing.

Obviously this sounds quite similar to geofencing, as both technologies identify a user’s distance to a particular location. However a beacon cannot pinpoint your location on a map. 

Beacons don’t necessarily need to do this though, they just need to know if you’re in range or not. Beacons are also much smaller and use much less energy then the technology needed for geofencing.

Therefore beacons are best for monitoring and serving content to micro locations. Geofences are less accurate on a small scale, but are much better suited for monitoring entry and exit to larger areas like festivals or sporting events.

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 25 June, 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

You might be interested in

Comments (3)


Mark Rushworth, Head of Search at Blue Logic Digital

We're already geofenced by Google who now nolonger displays the best results globally but now backs you into a corner showing results based on what your friends like... I know my friends they have bad taste why would i want to be influenced by them?

about 4 years ago


Barry Rutter, Digital Marketing Manager at Reed Exhibitions

Beacons (bluetooth LE) can be triangulated to exactly pinpoint your position on a map, we've done this in the states. Beacons can also reproduce the exact same functionality as NFC / RFID as you can do near field, medium and long range. iBeacons are not just about pushing messages, that is the use that people are running with but you can do many many things with them because a stand alone beacon is cheap, and your phone is also a beacon. NFC / RFID IMHO are yesterdays news

about 4 years ago


Joe Tarragano

I'd agree that beacons are interesting, but not that NFC/RFID are old news. That misses completely the value that each brings.
I'm a big fan of beacons (we just did the world's largest beacon deployment on behalf of Hammersons), but they're not without issue (how well did you solve for Android? And was your building one floor or multiple? And how many customers had BLE enabled? etc)
Equally, RFID can do amazing things (been to Burberry's lately? Or Decathlon?) and NFC has the advantage of being customer initiated.
The message of this article is that you need to understand the technologies well, but first think about what customer experience are you trying to deliver, and is that experience commercially and operationally sensible.

about 4 years ago

Save or Cancel

Enjoying this article?

Get more just like this, delivered to your inbox.

Keep up to date with the latest analysis, inspiration and learning from the Econsultancy blog with our free Digital Pulse newsletter. You will receive a hand-picked digest of the latest and greatest articles, as well as snippets of new market data, best practice guides and trends research.