Sam Jarman

@samjarman

A Way iBeacons Might Actually Work

December 31st 2017
The phone in our pocket is always capable of more. Photo from Pexels.com

The other day I was thinking more about iBeacons. These bluetooth-powered mini signals never really lived up to the hype they launched with. Implementations never really went mainstream (certainly not here in New Zealand) and most implementations were buggy, or flawed due to signal interference. They currently reside in museums or exhibitions, requiring special apps a lot of highly technical maintenance from staff.

I have an idea that Facebook could roll this out using their rich user profiles, existing apps, and millions of ad customers — a lot of which have physical retail stores.

Broken Promises

What happened? We were promised awesome, engaging messages on our devices from retailers we loved. I wanted to walk down the street and get deals from my favourite food places or clothes stores. This was meant to be it, the highly personalised, digital door salesman right on your phone. Yet, years later, this never happened. Let me talk you through why this may have never happened.

Too Hard to Set Up

iBeacons, or any similar protocol, needed a few key pieces to work more than the traditional sign in the window.

First up, you need a physical beacon in a place. This could be a beacon or a mobile phone with a Bluetooth (BT) chip. These need to produce a signal constantly, never running out of battery. However, most beacon providers don’t make it easy to replace the battery, which really sucks. 3 months might seem like great battery life in this one-day battery world, but it’s not really “set and forget” for non-technical retailers.

Secondly, you need an app that constantly scans for beacons. This means, typically, a dedicated that is aware of what are effectively serial numbers of the beacons, and constantly scanning for up to about 50 at any time. There are a myriad of problems to solve here; having to have bluetooth turned on at all times, managing which beacons are being listened for, actually getting users to install your app, dealing with attenuation of signals and keeping moving averages, triangulating position with multiple signals. Ugh, the list goes on.

My Idea for a Solution

So what’s my big idea then? Well, I think a company that could do this really well is Facebook.

The customer: Facebook have millions of ad customers world wide, and they are already set up with audiences, campaigns, billing and more. These are existing so building on new functionality would be a simple addition to the already very powerful advertising tools.

The stores: A lot of stores have “iPad as POS” these days, and installing a cheap device to be a dedicated beacon isn’t that unreasonable either. Running of mains power, with the usual charger, this could be very much set and forget. Just open the Facebook app and it’ll start pumping out an iBeacon signal. While your there, maybe answer a few customer enquiries too.

The user: Often the hardest piece to solve in this equation, this becomes quite trivial for Facebook. Addressing the points above:

  • The Facebook App is already installed on almost everyone’s phones, or Messenger, or Instagram, or WhatsApp. This will be the app to monitor for iBeacons and alert users when there is a message for them.
  • Managing which beacons to scan for out of possible thousands is easy because facebook knows our location. We check into things, tag Instagram photos with locations, and much more. This city-level accuracy could then power which beacons we’re most likely to walk past, and scan for those only.
  • Managing preferences and interests are done for you, since Facebook already collects rich interest data based on your browsing. If facebook ads show you what you like, this would be just as targeted.
  • Push notifications are already enabled on these apps since they’re all about engaging with others in real time. Adding another category for push isn’t too much work.
  • Bluetooth management is still hard, but as the advent of wireless headphones, smart watches and more dawns, this will become less of a problem. However, as Facebook begins to do this, the trade off (power/value) for users becomes more enticing.

So that’s how I see Facebook pulling this off. It wouldn’t be a huge amount of work, and it would be an interesting path for their ad business (their only business, ha) to take. Of course, location tracking always raises some good conversations around privacy, creepiness and advertising. The trade off of value and privacy is one we’re all making in one way or another, and that ‘line’ is different for everyone.

What do you think? Marketers — does this make sense to you? Does it appeal?Techies — have I forgotten something that makes this technically more difficult?

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