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…