Ho ho no! While you shop this season, beacons will spam you

Marketers have found a new channel to abuse, but it doesn't have to be this way

santa claus pushing shopping cart of gifts 81897017
Credit: Getty Images

Bluetooth Low Energy beacons are a wonderful technology that hold much promise and can make our daily lives easier. When Apple debuted its iBeacons technology more than a year ago, I saw beacons as a quiet revolution in the making.

But now come the marketers, determined to turn it into a spam engine that could derail beacons' adoption. This year, the first broad use of beacons in stores such as Macy's and GameStop has arrived, in time for Christmas. Actually, Christmas is the target, with marketers hoping to blast us with coupons and come-ons as we shop in physical stores this high-buying season.

Retail stores aren't alone in hoping to spam you as you enter their premises. A company called GuestDriven plans to deploy beacons in independent hotels so that guests "receive a welcome message when they walk through the doors, a special offer to upgrade to a suite upon arrival, or a message with in-room food options for guests checking in past dinner time."

Walgreens iOS app's notifications

The Walgreens iOS app's notifications on an iPhone has several settings for the kind of in-store messages that maybe sent via beacons triggers.

Various stores have been piloting beacons for a while. Coca-Cola, for example, used beacons in parking lots at World Cup venues in Brazil to send mobile ads directing people to the nearest Coke machine. Brazilian fashion retailer Dafiti is exploring using beacons in city parks to "alert" people to "the latest park outfits and lifestyle news." As you can see, nowhere will you be safe from spam.

GuestDriven CEO Anthony Zebrowski-Rubin is clear as to why marketers are salivating over beacons: "Beacons provide a way to market, engage, and upsell customers, while driving repeat business." That's the same value of junk mail, email spam, telemarketing calls, billboards, and flyers left on your windshield.

Of course, businesses need to attract and retain customers, and they can more easily grow profits if they get existing users to spend more -- which is much cheaper than getting new customers. Beacons are a great technology to connect with those existing customers.

The issue is how a retailer uses the beacons technology, not whether it uses beacons.

Beacons today are largely an iOS phenomenon. Apple baked in support for its iBeacons protocol in iOS 7, and all its iPhones and iPads have supported the required Bluetooth Low Energy radios since 2012.

Several beacons makers, such as Estimote, have APIs that developers can use on Android, iOS, and other devices, but Android devices supporting Bluetooth Low Energy have become common only in 2014 models. Google is working on its beacons APIs, with some in Android 5.0 Lollipop now slowly rolling out -- aimed solely at use for mobile advertising.

In the iOS world, you need an app for iBeacons to work with. The app is the conduit for the information exchange, as the exchange happens over the Internet, with the beacon triggering the exchange when detected via Bluetooth. The beacon also provides its location, so the app knows what you are and what context you're in. The app need not be running -- the iBeacons protocol in iOS will open or waken the app if needed.

What that all means is that retailers can be smart about how they use beacons. Many will simply spam you with "special offers" when you enter their premises. Others will be more subtle, welcoming you to the store and reminding you that their app can help you as you peruse the store.

iOS 8's location privacy settings

iOS 8's location privacy settings on an iPhone

Apps should have several levels of opt-in beacons interaction, typically:

  • Kiosk level enables the app to interact with beacons at the user's initiation. For example, you might initiate the app when in the men's section to get a floor plan for that area, or the ability to see what's out of stock but available for online purchase.
  • Guidance level enables the app to proactively guide you based on, say, your shopping list stored in the app once you've entered the store. Walmart has piloted this approach, for example.
  • Promotion level enables active promotions when in or near the store -- the "special offers," coupons, and so forth that marketers focus on. Certainly, there are shopaholics who will love these promotions, and they should able to get them, but not at everyone else's expense.

The key is in understanding that there should be several levels of interaction for different kinds of customers -- and letting customers manage that. Some apps do that today; Walgreens is an example, though it makes you opt out rather than in.

If beacon-triggered apps focus on only mobile promotion spam or turn that on automatically in an opt-out approach, many customers will simply turn off location services for the app, killing the beacons opportunity that retailers seek. Remember: Apple's iOS makes it (correctly) easy for customers to do so, via its Settings app's Privacy pane.

Marketers love to talk about using customer information to create a better user experience. Many don't really mean that, of course -- but they should. By using beacons wisely, they could put their deployments where their mouths are.

I believe they'll be pleasantly surprised by how customers react.

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