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…