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6 things marketers need to know about beacons

James A. Martin | Feb. 25, 2016
Bluetooth 'beacons' are a simple way for marketers to communicate with customers in physical locations, but the platforms and infrastructure behind the tiny wireless sensors can be quite complex. Here's a quick guide to the basics of beacons.

In today's noisy culture, it's increasingly difficult for enterprise marketers to reach customers and prospects, much less prompt them to take desired actions. However, this complex challenge appears to have at least one relatively simple solution: Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) "beacons." Also known as "proximity beacons," the inexpensive devices transmit relevant, targeted messages and information to nearby mobile devices.

Retailers are among the earliest BLE beacon adopters. A beacon-equipped department store could, for example, send special offers on baggage to customers as they enter, proceed through, or linger in the luggage department. Drug store chain Rite Aid recently announced a rollout of proximity beacons in each of its 4,500 U.S. stores, reportedly making it the largest retail deployment to date, according to ZDNet.

Beacons aren't just for marketers from brick-and-mortar retailers, either. They're also being deployed in sports and concert arenas, airports, trade shows and conferences (such as CES), schools, and museums that hope to engage and learn more about their customers. In many cases, the goal behind beacons is to increase customer engagement and, thus, sales and loyalty. Enterprises use beacons for logistics, as well, and some hospitals use the devices to improve patient care or track expensive assets.

ABI Research estimates suggest 3.9 million BLE beacons shipped globally in 2015, and the company projects the type of enterprises that adopt the technology in 2016 will continue to diversify, according to Patrick Connolly, ABI's principal analyst. Here are the basics of BLE beacons that every CMO and their marketing teams need to know. 

1. What exactly are BLE beacons? 

Beacons are small, battery-powered, always-on devices that use BLE technology to transmit signals to devices, such as smartphones and tablets, within a range of about 300 feet.

Beacons are one-way transmitters; they detect nearby devices in order to send them messages, but the target devices don't send information back to the beacons. Beacons are like lighthouses, according Patrick Leddy, CEO and founder of mobile marketing firm Pulsate, who spoke on the subject in a whiteboard video. "They send out a signal. They're unaware of themselves and any other devices around them ... They're just sending out these BLE packets and saying 'Hey, I'm here, see me, take action if you want." 

Multiple beacons can be positioned around an area, such as inside a store or airport, to broadcast relevant information to portable devices within their proximity. Mobile device owners can then react to, engage with, or use the information for indoor, turn-by-turn navigation and store discounts, among other things.

Beacons can also be used to track devices, and their users, when in range. For instance, marketers can use beacons that connect to mobile devices to determine how long customers linger in a specific store aisle.


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