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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.

2. Are there different beacon platforms?

The two biggest players in the beacon market are Apple and Google, and they both have their own standardized BLE beacon implementations. 

Apple's iBeacon was the first standardized BLE beacon platform. The company introduced the technology during its summer 2013 Worldwide Developers Conference, when it added iBeacon support to iOS 7. The iBeacon platform lets developers build mobile apps that can receive transmissions, such as location-aware notifications, from iBeacon-compatible devices. 

On Dec. 6, 2013, Apple installed iBeacons in all of its 254 U.S. retail stores. Shoppers with the Apple Store app installed on their Bluetooth-enabled, iOS devices with active location services can receive in-store notifications about deals, new products and more.

In July 2015, Google announced Eddystone, its BLE beacon technology. (A U.K. lighthouse inspired the name). Eddystone is similar to iBeacon, but unlike Apple's implementation, Google's is open source, and it's available on GitHub.

Both iOS and Android users can receive messages sent via the iBeacon and Eddystone platforms, according to Errett Kroeter, vice president of marketing for Bluetooth SIG. Marketers "don't need to worry about buying an iBeacon versus an Eddystone beacon," he says, because they work across the two platforms. 

However, some differences between Apple's and Google's implementations do exist. Most notably, Google's beacon platform can transmit URLs to mobile devices, which can then be opened in a mobile browser, Kroeter says. This feature coincides with Google's philosophy of the mobile browser as an all-purpose app. Apple's iBeacon implementation, as of now, interacts only with mobile apps on users' smartphones.

3. Who makes beacons, and how much do they cost?

Google and Apple don't make their own beacons. A variety of vendors manufacture and sell beacons based on one or both implementation standards, including Aruba, Estimote, Gimbal, and Radius Networks.

Beacons aren't expensive. Gimbal Proximity Beacons cost between $5 and $30, for example. Prices differ due to beacon signal range, types of batteries used, typical battery life (which can be several years), and other factors.

Facebook for Business makes BLE beacons available for free to businesses with Facebook pages. The beacons are specifically designed to trigger Facebook Place Tips and deliver information about the businesses to users' smartphones.

4. Why should marketing and sales use beacons?

Proximity data from beacons can provide brick-and-mortar retailers and other organizations with the some of the same physical personalization and targeting advantages they already have online.

Beacons can also help marketers gain more detailed customer insights. For example, retailers can get a better sense of how long customers spend on average in their stores, and in which aisles. "If you know customers spend a great deal of time in this store versus another store, and this product grouping versus another, you might do some retargeting across one of your ad networks, or maybe in your app" as a result of that knowledge, according to Pulsate's Leddy.


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