Beacons — and the Data They Provide — Help Merge the Digital and Physical Worlds

Wouldn’t it be great if we could all create marketing that is so fantastic, it becomes inextricable from the brand experience? What if those experiences were seamless between your audience’s blended physical and digital worlds? It’s what marketing coach Jay Baer calls “utility.”

Wouldn’t it be great if we could all create marketing that is so fantastic, it becomes inextricable from the brand experience? What if those experiences were seamless between your audience’s blended physical and digital worlds? It’s what marketing coach Jay Baer calls “utility.” When marketing is helpful and has relevant utility for the recipient, then it does achieve status as a “service.” We know it as marketing, but the recipient finds such value in it that it is viewed as service.

Similarly, because mobile is such a powerful part of the way people experience brands today, marketers are looking for ways to understand what people need “in the moment,” and provide it as a branded service.

What exactly do people want to hear from brands on their mobile phones that could be of such utility? In the past, advertisers had to make assumptions about messaging and were forced to send them without the input of the consumer.

Enter the beacon. It’s a powerful arrow in the marketing quiver, and can be exceptionally powerful in understanding and engaging people in that precious “moment of truth” when buying decisions are made.

Beacons are small indoor positioning devices that use low-energy Bluetooth (BLE) to communicate with a shopper’s smartphone, usually when they are on location or in a store. The hope is that the information sent – a text, an email, an app alert – will improve the in-store shopping experience and drive new sales. When placed in a store, beacons can detect nearby smartphones and send them media such as ads, coupons or customized supplementary product information. This brief video from ShopKick illustrates how it works through a trial it did with Macy’s in New York and San Francisco.

Not just for shoppers, beacons can also be used as point-of-sale systems and collect large amounts of data that can then be used to improve both real-time and right-time marketing, in-store and online.

Beacons allow marketers to deliver customized messages, usually designed to improve the shopping experience. Using preferences, previous shopping habits, location and other data, beacons allow marketing messages to be woven into the larger customer experience, creating both interactive and relevant messaging — all at the time of purchase.

Beacons are hot … a BI Intelligence report projects that use will grow 287 percent to nearly 5 million by 2018. With so many beacons already in play, it increases the stakes for getting them right. Take a look at a few examples of how beacons are being used to help you determine if it’s a good opportunity for both your business and your customers.

  • Miami International Airport recently launched an app that uses beacons to help consumers navigate overwhelming terminals and find the correct gate for departure. Similarly, an airline could use a beacon to alert people to delays and direct them to the bar or shopping choices around the corner – with a coupon!
  • The National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., and The Guggenheim in New York City have used beacons to enhance the visitor experience. When a viewer approaches a piece, additional information about that painting, sculpture or magazine cover is served directly to his or her phone. While certainly helpful in educating visitors, the real power is the tracking data provided to museum administrators. That data can help curators determine what exhibits are most popular and which need to be tweaked to better appeal to the audience.
  • McCormick & Co.’s Zatarain’s uses beacons to send shoppers grocery list reminders and loyalty points based on the context of the store from the food and spice brand.
  • Retailers like Macy’s and Target use beacons to recognize, reward and get to know their best customers. This helps increase loyalty and, in turn, build a stronger relationship with them. The data collected on these shoppers also allows highly personalized and targeted offers, which will reinforce the loyalty programs mentioned above.

Beacon technology is an incredibly cost-effective and targeted way to communicate, but the best value it provides is data. Data on consumer shopping habits and behavior will inform store layouts, product placement, target market penetration and on-site displays, as well as help monitor staff efficiencies and service standards.

Beacons are also invaluable to marketers because they help to merge all the “Moments of Truth” (MOTs) along a buying journey. Because customer experiences that used to take days or even months now happen in a fraction of a second, mobile is the accelerator of the connection and the channel by which a physical experience is enhanced through digital communications.

One caution: The use of beacons has to follow the same guideline as all marketing – it must have utility. Zapping people walking down the street past your store may not be welcome, but then again, a well-timed coupon might bring them into the store they may not have entered otherwise. Use beacons sparingly at first while you test out the value to your customers and prospects.

Becoming truly customer-centric – where your marketing serves the customer rather than the product or campaign goals – is complex, but beacons are becoming an important source of the data that enables marketers to map out actually helpful customer experiences. How are you thinking about merging digital and physical experiences? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Author: Stephanie Miller

Stephanie Miller leads the IMM/integrated marketing management practice for brand and marketing technology strategy firm TopRight ( She is a relentless customer advocate and a champion for marketers creating memorable customer experiences. A digital marketing and CRM expert, she helps sophisticated marketers balance the right mix of people, process and technology to optimize a data-driven content marketing strategy. She speaks and writes regularly and leads several industrywide initiatives. Feedback and column ideas are most welcome at or @stephanieSAM.

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