Sunday, 8 June 2014

Will Beacons be the ‘guiding lights’ of Customer Engagement? (1/2)

Today’s era is being touted as golden era for customer experience. If you don’t believe me, just do a google search for ‘golden era of customer’ & within first few pages, you will see my thoughts resonating. Admittedly it is somewhat true that every 5-10 years marketing people call that respective period as the era of customer service, but that is generally due to a new customer service product or a new method of customer service. The role of technology in customer service & customer engagement has seldom seen any radical changes. However, in today’s scenario, intense competition & advances in technology have propelled customer engagement to another level. Recent case in point is Beacon technology.

Beacon technology can be technically called as an application of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). Beacons are generally used as low energy transceivers that can be used to -- locate a mobile device in an indoor environment, as well as to send & receive some transactional messages. Even though this is achievable fairly easily through WiFi networks, it is not considered to be an efficient option considering its huge energy consumption. Mass adoption of beacon technology can certainly take Internet of Things (IoT) to the next level. When our regularly used mobile devices are equipped with indoor location services & transactional messaging capabilities with other devices in the proximity, a huge amount of applications are possible, and not just in customer engagement, but everywhere. This discussion however, skews a little bit towards the customer engagement domain. Many folks newly introduced to the technology believe that beacon is the same as iBeacon by Apple. Apparently, that is not the case. Many companies, like Apple, are introducing their own platform for harnessing the capabilities of the technology (see Gimbal by Qualcomm -; as well as Estimote). Apple just happens to have a large share of day-to-day use mobile devices (iPhones, iPads), which are ideal for beacon deployment.  

Now it’s time to have a peek into the actual capabilities offered by beacons. In my view, the primary benefit of beacons is to provide geolocation-based communication. This involves recognizing devices in the proximity & start a bidirectional communication with them. The applications of this technique could be indoor location tracking & location based targeting. For example, indoor location tracking can help retailers massively in product placement. It could give some really granular information about physical behavior of the customer, like time spent in each aisle, avg. time spent in a specific section/department of the store etc. Location based targeting could enable retailers to present the customers with some really relevant offers depending on the aisle or shelf near which the customer is standing. Wouldn’t you just love it when you are standing in the aisle where all bath products are kept & you receive a notification on your mobile about a combo offer on soaps & shampoos? That would be contextual marketing at its best.

However, while marketers are trumpeting this advertising aspect of beacons, brands & retailers are missing out on a rather important aspect – awareness. How would you let the customer know about your product not before, not after, but at the exact moment when he is actually standing the aisle looking to buy something to address that particular need? Beacons! When you can connect with your customer’s phone through Bluetooth inside the store, you can offer your entire range of products to him/her at that instant. We all have gone through that embarrassing experience of having to ask store helpers multiple times just to get to the right shelf. Now, you could have an electronic map of entire store at your fingertips! Furthermore, that map may come with search-navigation functionality to navigate you to the correct shelf. Not only that, it could offer detailed information about every product that is present on that shelf, with the reviews of fellow customers! That is something no store associate can provide. If I wanted to buy headphones or a bread packet or a T-shirt or a cereal box, I would just have to search in the particular category & the app (yes, this would most probably require a dedicated app that connects to the store database) would offer me a list of all the brands for that product type, with the shelf no. on which it is kept & directions to navigate to that shelf. Also, if the app can be connected to the store inventory database, it could even show the number of items presently in stock.

Most amazing thing is that all this is not just a daring dream of the distant future anymore. Beacon technology could make it possible & is really doing it some of the developed countries. There are many more applications of beacons rather than just in brick & mortar stores. Watch out for the second part of this article as we try to discuss some more applications & other aspects related to the technology.