Back in September 2013, Apple released iOS version 7 – the engine that powers the iPhone. Within that release was contained the latest incarnation of Apple’s “location based service” functionality and an important addition to that was the iBeacon. What is iBeacon, what are location based services and, why should you care?  Put simply, location based services are a set of features provided by your phone that relate to where you’re standing on the planet. We’re all familiar with GPS but your phone also uses such things as cellular towers to “triangulate” your position.  If your phone can communicate with a given cell tower then you must be within the broadcast radius of that tower.  If your phone can see three or more cell towers, then it can get a reasonable idea of where you are.  Apps like “Yelp” access these services within your phone and serve up information such as what restaurants are nearby – this is a location based service. Hardly a day goes by when we don’t make use of these types services.  Now, wouldn’t it be great if we could use this same tech indoors and with more accuracy to locate specific items at a local mall or grocery store for example?  This is one of the many uses of an iBeacon.

iBeacon is Apple’s branding and implementation of a “Bluetooth Low Energy” beacon or “BLE tag” as it’s sometimes called. A beacon is like a Bluetooth lighthouse. Beacons are not unique to Apple – they run equally well on Android devices.  A beacon doesn’t communicate directly with the phone, but rather the phone listens for the beacons signal which is emitted up to ten times a second. Similar to the triangulation that takes place with cell towers, if our phone can see a beacon and we know where that beacon is, we must be somewhere within its broadcast radius.  If we can see multiple beacons, then we know we’re standing at the intersection of those signals. Tangentially, this holds true not only for Bluetooth beacons but also Wi-Fi – if we can see a given wireless access point then our position is somewhere within the radius of its signal – this is referred to collectively as IPS or Indoor Positioning Systems, similar to GPS, but on a much smaller scale and frequently indoors “on a closed track”.

All sorts of nifty things become possible when we’re able to get an idea of “who” is at our venue and where they’re standing.  A customer at a location that’s enabled with beacons can make use of the space much more effectively.  Imagine a mall where you can not only find the store you’re looking for, but also the exact position of the item you’re searching for within that store – just by loading that mall’s mobile app.  Looking for the closest bathroom?  You can receive turn-by-turn directions right on your phone.  Users of such applications can receive timely and relevant notifications of special offerings – the best time to be notified of a deal is when you’re on site. Loyalty programs can factor in not only your purchases but how often you visit. One touch call for assistance functionality can be added to the app making sure that personnel are where they’re needed, when they’re needed.  I classify these types of customer focused benefits into three categories: (1) Information, (2) Savings and, (3) Service.  Get customers the information they need, give them the opportunity to get the best deals, and provide them with assistance when needed – all in a timely manner.

There are also considerable benefits for the venue’s/business’s owner. The goal of any business is to engage with existing and prospective customers in order to produce a sale – an affirmative response to our “call to action”. Customer engagement is a spectrum of activities beginning with creating awareness of our offering and culminating with a sale. This can be repeated hundreds and even thousands of times a day. Typically we’re unable to effectively measure and evaluate how this process is unfolding until a sale occurs. With a venue specific mobile application, this doesn’t need to be the case.  If we can raise awareness of our mobile app and convince customers of the benefits of having it installed and running when they visit – then the owner can gain valuable insights. For venue owners, “Footfall analytics” are a key metric with regard to customer visits: At what time?  For how long?  How often do they come back? What areas/products do visitors find of most interest? At what rate are we gaining customers? At what rate are we losing customers?  All of this information can be gathered and used to measure, analyze, and examine the effectiveness of marketing campaigns, events, displays, and promotions.  A/B style tests can be run and evaluated.  Our venue-specific app can be used to automatically acknowledge customers as they enter our location, update them with our latest offerings, and reward frequent visits. Tap and go style functionality can be used to both handle requests for detailed item information and to facilitate sharing on social media. Post-purchase we are given the opportunity to thank and reward patrons as well as request consideration on social media.  At all times however, it must be kept in mind that the installation and usage of our app is a privilege the customers have granted us.  It’s a careful balancing act, we must strive to provide value for the consideration given, and we must be mindful not to be intrusive with our messaging.  I’ve seen and experienced numerous applications where “push notifications” sent to the app were used almost as a form of spam.  I was quick to uninstall those applications.

Finally, although this is an article about mobile applications, due consideration must be given to a venues Wi-Fi offerings – or lack thereof. Free Wi-Fi should be considered as essential as lighting. It is a value added courtesy and is an opportunity to begin to engage the customer in an unobtrusive manner. “Wireless available” should be prominently displayed at entrances and the venues current offerings should appear on the Wi-Fi landing page. Additionally, a notice that a mobile app is available should be prominently displayed ideally, with an associated rewards program. These should appear on the Wi-Fi landing page, as well on signage at the stores entrance and at the register. An initial discount granted on the first purchase after the app is installed should be given as well as automatic enrollment in any rewards program. It should be noted that even a single wireless access point is enough to provide information on footfall traffic at a location – access points log all of the mobile devices they see. If you have two access points, one at the entry and one at the rear, they can be used to provide some indication of number of those that “walk-by” and number of “bounces” (those that enter and quickly leave).

The case for venue specific mobile applications is strong. The benefits of engaging customers early, often and in a timely and relevant manner, is self-evident. Being able to measure not only the effectiveness of campaigns and promotions but also the overall composition and health of the customer base is crucial. With such tools, an effective advertising campaign can be differentiated from poor on-site follow-up. The rate of customer attrition, new customer acquisition and retention can be evaluated. The installed base of venue specific applications will continue to grow and the functionality they provide, will become a customer expectation. The question then will be not if you should invest in such an app but whether you can afford to give up such an edge to your competitors.