It’s unusual for Apple to not make a song and dance about the launch of something new, but the company’s iBeacon slipped largely under the radar when it was first announced at the company’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) last summer. So far, Apple has used the proximity software to help users set up the Apple TV just by waving your iPhone near the device, but I suspect the really big application for iBeacon will be in location-based marketing.
Location has long been seen as a holy grail for marketers, and as a concept it’s overdue delivering on its ‘next big thing’ promise. I’m inclined to place the blame for this sluggish progress on NFC.
Last week I spoke at the Financial Services Forum in London, and there was still a lot of talk about NFC. This is despite the fact that it’s just not taken off as a location-based marketing tool, or as a payment mechanism. The technology is hardware-based and expensive, and consumers don’t get it. And, crucially, Apple snubbed it – refusing to add an NFC chip to consecutive iterations of its ubiquitous iPhone.
With iBeacon, Apple has provided an answer to NFC that I think will prove to be the killer app that gets location-based marketing via smartphones off the ground and running.
So what is iBeacon? It’s a proximity-based communication technology. iBeacons are little transmitters that businesses can plant in their stores. These inexpensive devices detect the proximity of opted-in smartphones and can send them messages. They work via Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE sometimes called Bluetooth Smart), so all the sophisticated messaging is through apps, not an expensive hardware chip (in contrast to NFC). This means that businesses have virtually no barriers to start using proximity to market to their customers. And as iBeacon’s range is better than NFC, using a few iBeacons can triangulate a user’s exact position in store.
The opportunity for marketers is exceptional. A small restaurant could use a single iBeacon, and reward customers for repeat visits or tempt them to come in if they walk past at lunchtime. A supermarket, on the other hand, could use a number of iBeacons to track a customer’s position in the store – if they linger just a little too long near the expensive craft beers, perhaps a three-for-two mobile voucher will tempt them to try them?
To my mind it’s a generation further on from NFC, and it’s going to be the key to a boom in location-based messaging. It’s a relatively inexpensive way to start building that one-to-one relationship with your consumers that proves so valuable when it comes to converting them into customers – and converting their custom into loyalty. And unlike NFC, it’s a simple, ‘low-res’ tech that almost any business can get involved with, and it’s ready and waiting for app developers and marketers to pick it up and get innovating.
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