iBeacons – should we be pushing or pulling content?

iBeacons are causing quite a stir at the moment with a flurry of major companies, including airlines, retail giants and arts venues running trials and pilot schemes trying to work out how they can be employed, the benefits they may bring and how consumers react to the geo-position enabled devices.

The key battleground, as we see it, is the contest between enabling customers to pull context-relevant information when they want it vs. companies using the technology to push information.  The push model seems to have the negative potential to become intrusive and marketing led.

iBeacons are small, low cost, location transmitting devices, that can be installed in fixed locations within the built environment to talk to smartphones via Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). They have the advantage over GPS in that they work inside and therefore can enable smartphone apps to trigger personalised messages and bespoke content to users when they come within close proximity to the beacons. In essence, the beacons provide the user with location sensitive information/content that has not before been possible within buildings. It also enables the provider to monitor where people are – for example, as shopper walks into a store or a passenger nears a check-in area.

Recently Tesco and Waitrose have both been running pilot schemes at single store locations with an expressed aim to boost customer shopping experience. Waitrose have developed an in-store mode to its app which, via the beacons, enables users to receive in-store offers as they approach particular aisles or food counters, read product reviews and add and collect items in a virtual shopping basket.

In another camp, Tescos are playing it more cautiously. Their trial is initially being used to deliver pop-up reminders to customers to pick up pre-ordered items as they walk into the store. Tesco have said they will be holding off pushing promotions, for the time being, over fears it could scare customers away from using the app if they are bombarded with messages.

Meanwhile in France, supermarket giant Carrefour have jumped in with both feet in its flagship Paris store, installing 200 beacons, which automatically open the Carrefour app upon entering the store then enable shoppers to be guided around the store in the most efficient manner to collect items from their personal shopping lists and/or recipe ingredients they have selected on their app at home. Their intention is to soon send geo-push coupons and offers to shoppers’ phones based on their location in-store and buying profile.

Over in the arts sector, the power of iBeacon-enabled apps is set to revolutionise the visitor experience within museums, galleries and exhibitions. Location sensitive content pushed to visitor smartphones and tablets as they approach exhibits has the potential to unearth a fresh new layer of rich and interesting information to support and entertain the visitor as they wander around the museum/gallery. Current thinking has proposed concepts such as:

  • Provide additional information about an exhibit to bring it to life. For example a video or sound clip describing the details, inspiration and interesting anecdotes about a painting. 
  • Augmented reality allowing the viewer to look back in time at the interior of a room via their smart phone screen. 
  • Present information in a large range of languages rather than the sometimes limited set on printed information. 
  • Provide suggestions of other artwork or pieces within the gallery based on items the viewer ‘likes’. 
  • Provision of contextual info which automatically pops up as the viewer walks past a painting/exhibit making interaction effortless. The viewer chooses whether to engage with the pop up…. or not. 
  • Provide dynamic routing around large exhibits and communicate proximity to facilities. 

Airports are busy transport hubs, with high passenger numbers who all have to abide by a set process and schedule. The airport also has a multitude of facilities, from retail, to dining to leisure. Within this dynamic and inherently multi-cultural environment there are opportunities for the application of technology and iBeacons to simplify or enhance the journey.
SITA have recently published their research findings on the use of iBeacons in airports.  This includes automating the push of boarding info, automatically bringing passenger boarding card onto the smartphone homescreen when nearing checkpoints and advising passengers of the “rules” (e.g. remove liquids and laptops from your hand baggage) and informing arriving passengers of baggage timings and reclaim belt details.

Easyjet are also trialling iBeacons at three of their key airports allowing users of the Easyjet app to receive updates and personal info at key touchpoints. These include where to drop off oversize luggage, and personalising live boarding gate info to save passengers having to stare at departure screens.
Virgin Atlantic are also on board with an iBeacon trial but appear to be pushing the envelope further with push notifications sent to passengers informing them of partner company promotions such as a currency exchange offer as they pass the TravelEx. They are also aiming to push notifications to passengers in the Virgin Club lounge when slots in the Club spa become available.

All of these trials and ideas show that there are different views and a very careful line to tread here between engagement and bombardment.

So, are iBeacons the future of customer experience?

They certainly seem to offer an interesting opportunity to engage and communicate important useful information to users and to aide supporting navigation around indoor spaces. In the arts sector they can unlock whole new channels of information and entertainment. Most powerfully is what they can do in the provision of accessibility information and aiding navigation and travel information for hearing or sight impaired travellers.

However, there are clear concerns that the usefulness could easily be eroded by overzealous use for pushed marketing notifications.

We are interested in identifying positive applications where it can really make a difference to the users experience or interaction with a place. Our initial guidance on how iBeacon features should be utilised is that:

  • Features which enrich the users experience or make it easier and reduce time queuing are positive and should be developed further. 
  • Pop up notifications should be used sparingly and where companies believe they can deliver useful, usable content to the user.  The user needs to remain in control of what they receive
  • Language selection inline with the users smartphone could really aide international travellers who may sometimes struggle in foreign buildings. 
  • Geo-position targeted messages should not be use as a mass marketing tool. If it begins to feel like location targeted spam users will soon switch off and disconnect. 
  • Automatic pop up of a feature that the user needs to use – such as a boarding pass is good, automatic pop ups of adverts is not. 
  • Use of digital content should be seen as supplementing physical signage and displays within the building, NOT replacing. Physical signage communicates to all, not just those with smart phones and selected apps. 
  • iBeacon features have the potential to deliver accessibility information to passengers/users with hearing or sight impairments to help them navigate and access travel information. We see this as a genuinely powerful and positive use of the technology. 


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