Mobile Marketing Just Got Lot More Interesting (Hello, iBeacon)

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"Good afternoon, Mr. Yakamoto. How did you like that three-pack of tank tops you bought last time you were in?" - Talking billboard, Minority Report

Near-field communications (NFC) has been on the tip of every digital strategist’s tongue the past few years as they made their predictions of what the next big thing in mobile technology would be. NFC allows for short-range radio communication—a few inches—allowing users to tap their phone to perform various functions, including paying for goods and transferring files.

But consumers and marketers never wholly embraced NFC, particularly because Apple never installed an NFC chip in their phones (and insists they never will). Instead, Apple put their poker chips in the pot of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and its own iBeacon technology, which surprisingly is not only found in Apple’s iOS7 (in iPhone models 4S and above) but also is compatible with any Bluetooth Low Energy-capable mobile device running Android 4.3 or higher.

The implications of this technology, which was largely ignored when iOS7 was announced at WWDC, can shift the physical-to-digital retail experience as significantly as social media shifted the customer-to-brand relationship. Social media leveled the playing field, allowing customers to have a voice and requiring that brands not only listen but also respond. Instead of one-way advertising, brands had to connect with customers on a personal level. This ushered in the age of content marketing, where brands and customers can connect on a daily basis on blogs, apps, and of course social media accounts.

But all this was pre- and post-shop, when customers weren’t in the store. When it finally came down to “the last three feet” in store, otherwise known as the zero moment of truth, customers were largely on their own. Widespread adoption of BLE and iBeacon allows merchants to connect with create immersive and interactive digital experiences from the moment they walk in the door (or even pass by outside) to those pivotal final three feet. Physical can now be enhanced by digital.

Major League Baseball has already hopped on board, implementing the technology in Bluetooth-enabled Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. The organization has laid out beacons around the stadium activating different experiences along the way. Enter Citi Field and stand near the original Big Apple and you’ll see a video about the old Shea Stadium. Keep walking and as you reach the escalator you’ll get a $2 coupon to Nathan’s simply because you’re a new visitor (the technology can record visit frequency). The possibilities from there are endless—directions to your seats, loyalty discounts for multiple visits to the Mets Team Store, a pretzel coupon when you buy a burger from Shake Shack (or vice versa).

The Internet of Things is upon us. Using the MLB example, imagine the history lesson users can get as they stroll through Fenway or Wrigley. Retail stores can provide customized promotions according to visit history and what aisle the customer is standing in as well as useful product information. Movie theaters can remind customers to grab a Pepsi by offering a coupon as they’re buying tickets or view a special movie trailer as they walk by a certain poster. Of course, it could simply be used to pay for goods without having to get up close and personal to tap devices. Customers could buy clothes as they walk out of the dressing room or even before they get to the store, avoiding the checkout line completely.

It’s this idea of “exclusivity” that can motivate consumers to put the laptop down, grab the keys and head outside the house for shopping and entertainment experiences. Exclusive offers, exclusive experiences and exclusive rewards can all be activated effortlessly with BLE and iBeacons technology.

Brick-and-Mortar commerce—which extends from ballparks to Best Buys and everything in between—has an opportunity to provide value and customization through digital technologies, something that has sorely been lacking in the industry. Customers have been using their mobile devices to shop, but often to the detriment of physical stores (see: Showrooming). Now the devices that a majority of Americans have on their person at all times can create another branded touchpoint along the customer journey. For those brands that embrace the technology early, it will pay dividends, and the opportunities are endless. It’s digital helping the traditional “retail” convert a consumer into a customer, and it’s coming. Get ready.

Jon Thomas is a senior digital Strategist at TracyLocke and frequent contributor to Say Daily. Follow him on Twitter @Story_Jon.