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How to build killer ‘Location Based Services’ / Kamran Saeed, Brainstorm Mobile Solutions

by on June 23, 2014 in Lead Article, Media, Mobile, Mobile Marketing, Mobile/Tablet, Online Advertising, Retail, Rock 'n Roll


Making sense of the wonderful world of location technologies and how to build killer Location Based Services! Cast your eyes over industry publications and you won’t need to look too far to find an article or news item on beacons, or as its commonly referred to as, ibeacons.

But what is this technology and how is it supposedly changing the way location based services can be delivered? Or in fact, perhaps the right question to ask – will it indeed make the kind of impact technology analysts are anticipating in mobile engagement solutions?

What is a Beacon?

Let’s begin by clarifying the various terminologies and acronyms used in the beacon world. Beacons (not iBeacons – which is a Trademark referring to Apple’s version of the tech) are essentially small portable devices, no bigger than a matchbox that in tech terms is a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) 4.0 chip, otherwise known as Bluetooth Smart. BLE is not be confused with its forerunner, the classic Bluetooth technology that we’ve known of for some years. One of the notable characteristics of BLE is that it is has an integrated power source sufficient enough to run the device for up to 2 years, possibly longer with some available devices. Once installed, the Beacons transmit a 2.4 GHz Bluetooth signal which can then communicate with your smartphone based on a range from as close as a couple of inches to as far as 200 feet.

What can a Beacon do?

In marketing and connectivity terms, Beacons can enhance location awareness by offering the ability to communicate with end-users based on their indoor position.

A look at the location technology landscape

Beacons of course are nothing new, or at least in what they can do from a location perspective. They are however the latest kid on the block from a long line of location-based technologies that have been available for some time – which explains much of the hype. The list below is a useful snapshot of the various location technologies that have wide reaching applications across location engagement solutions:

Type Description Benefits Drawbacks
GSM Active Cell site location established by a request to the user device in the form of a silent ping via the mobile operator’s network infrastructure A relatively simple method to establish location on end-users without the need for complex engineering Each ping is costly and it has often been considered a limited proposition for targeting consumers based on location
GSM Passive A sophisticated mechanism utilising the mobile operators passive data collector (or equivalent) to extract wide area location events relating to subscriber movement from one cell site to another A more refined mechanism that can automatically notify service providers when an end-user has entered a pre-defined geofence e.g. street. This mechanism allows for more intelligent services to be created based on location being a trigger event leading to some type of outcome. It is device agnostic meaning no need for a smartphone or an app Involves complex engineering to integrate with the mobile operator and more importantly as a mechanism for location is somewhat less consistent in accuracy i.e. precision is dependent upon a reasonable concentration of cell sites – which means location in rural areas could be several miles off, whilst for cities can be much more precise, within feet
GPS Tracking location on smartphone devices using embedded GPS technology communicating with orbiting satellites GPS triangulation offers very accurate levels of location (within feet) and is technically much simpler to offer inside consumer products like mobile apps Heavy battery consumption makes this a less user-friendly technology amongst smartphones users. Another important consideration is signal blockage, a clear view of the sky is needed to establish a connection (so closed venues are out!).GPS also requires an installed app to communicate to
WiFi Utilising a WiFi networks AP’s (access point’s) to scan for devices that analyse the signal strength to localise the device WiFi offers a unique ability to establish location and connect the experience to a fast internet browsing session where enriched content can be served Accuracy is determined by the concentration of WiFi AP’s and triangulation can sometimes be inconsistent. Another consumer wide consideration is that WiFi means you have to have a device that is internet ready (keep in mind there is still an audience who haven’t made the leap from feature phone to smartphone)
BLE Beacons Discreet bluetooth low energy chips that can be installed almost anywhere that transmit a signal to a locally roaming mobile device resulting in a channel connection being established over which information can be broadcast An incredibly versatile technology that has the power to sustain itself for 2+yrs. Characteristics of the technology means you can be incredibly precise with location tracking over long, medium and short range Very few drawbacks other than users need a smartphone with an installed app to communicate to

How do you choose a suitable location technology?

Having had extensive conversations with brands around location over the last 18 months I frequently encounter the same question – what location technique should we use? My response is almost always the same – “don’t get hung up on the location technique, instead carefully consider the context of engagement to increase your chances of delivering a successful solution”. Yes – location should be a secondary consideration whilst the design of the service or solution should be primary in driving whatever technologies are chosen to fulfill.

Whilst the various technologies do differ in terms of the mechanism and method it is ultimately the manner of engagement that will response rates. Let’s take the world of marketing as a use case to demonstrate what I mean. There has recently been a surge in activity around beacons (mainly thanks to Apple’s PR machine putting the word ‘ibeacons’ firmly on the global digital marketing map) and the various early stage funded enterprises popping up to offer beacons specifically for retail marketing. In almost every case you will notice that the focus is on the location aspect and the versatility of beacons (and we shouldn’t diminish this because I am indeed a big fan of this tech). But nowhere can we find the thinking around how this technology should be effectively utilised. The result of this could lead to a mindset of ‘build it and they will come’! But what are we building? Are we simply integrating beacons into retail brand apps and hoping that consumers will be fully engaged and that conversion rates against marketing offers will go through the roof? No! So how should we approach this? Well, as any good digital marketing whitepaper will tell you, it revolves around the question of context and psychology!

Consider context – what are we sending to the consumer and why is it compelling enough for them to initiate a call to action? There is a very good reason why retailers are on a mission to create the ultimate SVC (single view of the customer). It’s because they are desperate to understand how their consumers are engaging with their brand, spanning everything from the type of products they like, the types of devices they are interacting across (tablets, phablets, desktop etc.) and other peripheral information like affluence etc. Intelligent analysis of this information will quickly tell you what the most appropriate treatment for a consumer persona (down to the individual) is, geared around channel of communication and type of content. If we now add the location dimension, I don’t want to be hit with an offer for a gadget if I am commuting from work to home via the city and just happen to break a geofence wrapped around a brand store whose products I like.

The solution therefore might be that organisations like retail brands still have a lot to do to consolidate their multiple enterprise CRM systems to enrich and augment consumer data so that they can truly begin to understand what their customers are looking for. See – we started with how to chose a location technology and have somehow ended up considering big data!! It’s not all about location, it’s more the context.

Consider psychology – the nature of passive location technologies like beacons means they silently wait for a user to come within range. They then target them with some sort of content to their device, unlike NFC (near field communication) that relies upon the consumer initiating an action e.g. a tap to receive content, so by default implying they have a desire to receive that content. Therefore we must be careful when pushing content passively so that it doesn’t become a nuisance factor and ultimately antagonise the customer – leading to a bad brand experience. Experience is the key word here. The experience from initial contact (driven by context) must then lead into a slick user experience that allows the consumer to receive content of interest and then take an appropriate action to extract value from that content whether that might be linking to a mobile optimised site to purchase something or simply driving them in-store to seek out a bargain. In this line of thinking the psychology goes hand in hand with the customer experience and journey.

A quick note on the customer journey

How many times have you come across a mobile based message that might offer some promotion with a link that when clicked navigates you to a desktop version of the brand’s site. Econsultancy figures illustrate that whilst mobile traffic is growing at a rapid rate still only 33% of companies surveyed from an audience of 500 businesses have a HTML5 mobile site (product). Be clear that the mobile journey is very separate to the desktop journey or else the experience will remain fragmented offering little to re-enforce the supposedly mobile experience.

Not just for marketing

Coming back to beacons, let’s take at closer look at exactly what this piece of kit can offer. Retail is an obvious area where multiple players have identified the unique marketing attributes that beacons can enable. What’s missing is a focus on customer driven or enterprise services. There is a huge opportunity for non-marketing scenarios in healthcare, logistics, or even in-store customer services etc. For example facilities management based on worker access to certain zones etc. or simply providing back to organisations like the TFL (Transport or London) on footfall analysis of city movement.

Beacons also have another unknown secret, they contain other sensors that can read information such a temperature, humidity, acceleration etc. Just imagine the power of combining these sensor readings and using a little imagination around what types of use cases can be brought alive.

In summary

The crux of it is that beacons are in effect dumb location devices. The real power of this technology will only be unlocked when developers build smart platforms and apps that harness beacon location to deliver slick customer experiences and journeys based on insight gleaned from multiple sources of data on and relevant to the end-user. Home automation is a great example of where beacons can be integrated into a fully connected lifestyle context – unlocking your digital door lock when you pull into the driveway whilst simultaneously turning on your home ambient lighting depending on what frame of mind you might be in (detected by where your smartphone has accompanied you e.g. the gym).

Location technologies will continue to evolve and offer greater precision capability but the essence of a good experience depends on thinking through the end-to-end customer journey.

Kamran Saeed, director of strategy and innovation, Brainstorm Mobile Solutions.


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