How Publishers Should Approach Beacons

In December 2014, NetNewsCheck published an article encouraging publishers to explore beacons in 2015.  Being app developers ourselves, we pay close attention to anything that presents opportunity in mobile.

If you’re new to the concept, a beacon is a small device that broadcasts a Bluetooth low energy (BLE) signal. That signal contains the beacon’s unique identifiers, called a UUID, and a few other data points about it.  Beacons don’t record data, store information or send push alerts. All of that happens through an app.

A real-world example: I’ve previously downloaded the Lord & Taylor app, and decide to shop through their “beaconified” store for a new Christmas sweater. The L&T app recognizes the beacon signal and “bing!” the app sends me a push alert welcoming me to the store with a 10% discount.

For a smartphone to be able to detect and make use of a beacon, it must meet four criteria. One, the end user must have an app installed that recognizes beacons. Two, the device must be Bluetooth enabled. Three, the user must opt-in to share location with the app. Four, the device must be running iOS 7 or higher or Android 4.3 or higher.

Across our network of apps, here’s how Reveal’s audience stacks up: 93.6% of iOS users run iOS 7 or higher; 89.7% of Android users run 4.3 or higher; 54.2% enable location and 29.7% enable Bluetooth.

The initial lure and marketing hype around beacons centers on real-time notifications. Within seconds or less of detecting a beacon, the app decodes the signal and delivers a push alert to the device: “Welcome to Sears. Free Socks. Today Only!”

So here are a few “real-time” ideas to bat around the next coffee break.

Perhaps you’re taking the family to Disney’s “Frozen on Ice” tour. The app detects a beacon at the venue, then serves up content relevant to that context. The user opens the app and sees “Best Places To Eat in Downtown” in the news feed.

Alternatively, the app delivers ads for nearby advertisers into your existing mobile ad formats. Back to the “Frozen” example, local merchants near the venue run campaigns in your app to draw visitors to their establishments after the show.

Finally, the app sends push notifications alerting you to content relevant to your current location, or nearby advertisers. This more active approach builds upon the first two examples, but uses a combination of beacon technology and push notifications to prompt action from the user.

There is also merit exploring how beacons add value to mobile publishers over extended periods of time.

As more retailers around the globe deploy beacons, we end up with a network of physical places that each have their own digital bookmark. A beacon gives a location its own real-world “URL,” or a way to identify and connect the physical and digital realms.

Knowing this digital footprint of locations empowers publishers to understand how an opted-in audience navigates through the world. Where do they shop? How often? When do they typically visit? Can we prove that someone saw an auto ad and then visited the dealer a few days later?

The end goal is audience understanding, curated over time, to improve mobile advertising and to build more relevant mobile products. This may take the form of retargeting mobile devices based upon previous location visits. With the “Frozen” example, this could mean creating campaigns to reach consumers who have been to specific events with offers to draw them back to upcoming shows.

Local media can create targeted audience segments built to outperform the ad impression carpet bombing techniques common to share-of-voice and sponsorship campaigns. Think business travelers, technology enthusiasts, mobile mothers, immobile fathers, frequent shoppers… all are rife with possibilities for beacons.

What about truly attributable, results-driven campaigns? Place beacons in your advertiser’s locations, with their permission, and see how many people actually show up as a result of your campaigns. The disruptive potential is profound.

Now that they know enough to be dangerous, publishers should approach beacons with both optimism and skepticism.

The skeptic focuses on how real-time notifications add value to a publisher’s audience. In apps, content is king. With beacon driven notifications, context is king.

Should your news or weather app send real-time push alerts for nearby advertisers? No. Don’t do it. Your audience will revolt. This is wildly out-of-context. Besides, Apple doesn’t allow advertising driven push notifications unless it fits the context of your app. If you’ve got a stand-alone coupon app, blast away.

The skeptic demands you pay attention to audience scale and the rate at which beacons are being deployed. Retailers will install tens of thousands of beacons in the next few years, but should you wait to test until then? High performing audience segments work great as long as they deliver meaningful impression volume, higher CPMs or both.

The skeptic believes that not every company, advertiser or retail establishment needs their own app to deliver beacon-powered push alerts. Despite my own crush on the app economy, mobile websites work best for most businesses. Does the regional auto-dealer really need its own white-label app and location aware push alerts? No; they need an easy-to-use mobile website and people greeting customers when they walk through the door.

Finally, the skeptic realizes that we need more transparency than ever on what data is being collected and why. A simple “sunshine test” makes this easy. If you’re not comfortable sharing and explaining your data practices in public, then don’t do it. If someone wishes to opt out, that needs to be a simple process.

Like my mother always says, no matter how thin the pancake, there are always two sides.

The optimist knows that testing and innovating with beacons is absolutely worth pursuing in 2015. She’s competing with Facebook, Twitter, Google and every other major app for audiences and ad dollars, and those guys already know more about their audience than you do.

She knows that bridging the mobile revenue gap is her top priority, and requires new tactics and audience understanding. Beacons offer potential solutions to both.

New, innovative real-time campaigns will immediately attract advertiser interest. Just don’t screw up the execution and freak out your audience.

Data built over time is key to unlocking valuable audience understanding, and then publishers must use that knowledge to improve local, regional and national sales. Better audience data equals better products, happier users, more engagement, more effective campaigns, happier advertisers, higher CPMs and ultimately more revenue opportunity.

We are still very early in the life cycle of beacons. They present technology, privacy and implementation hurdles. Nevertheless, it’s time to start testing.

Thought Gallery Channel:
StartUps and Innovation