Beacons: connecting the physical and digital

Beacons are the invisible physical and digital keys to new services

“Software Is Eating The World”

So said the entrepreneur, investor and developer Marc Andreessen in a famous essay of 2011. “How come?” one may ask: Sure, doesn’t the physical world still consist mainly of atoms, even if bits are taking over in the digital sphere?

Part of the answer lies in beacons (or iBeacons, as Apple calls them), which connect the physical and digital worlds. Beacons are nothing more than small transmitters with low energy consumption and limited local reach. Mobile phones, for example, can receive and react to their signals.

It is thanks to beacons that an app knows the location of its user and can offer him or her a relevant user experience in that context. Among the earliest adopters are retailers – no surprise that Apple quickly equipped its own stores and upgraded the Apple Store app accordingly.

Beacons beyond retail

But the possibilities go well beyond the retail space. Interactive museum guides converse with visitors via beacons, explaining all about the latest exhibitions. In the US, fans inside baseball stadiums receive background information on the game that is taking place. The ticket inspector on the train makes his presence known to the railway app via a beacon, as a result of which the app on the passenger’s smartphone automatically displays his or her digital ticket.

All kinds of new interfaces can be created. In place of cumbersome ATMs, as we know them, bank customers can avail themselves of an elegant app which, thanks to beacons, knows which customer is at the ATM. After a minimum of interaction the machine dispenses the desired amount.

The scope for innovative services is practically limitless. But here, too, success will depend on how well the user’s requirements are considered and how the content and user experience is suited to the location and context.

For marketers, beacons become valuable, when individual interactions with the brand or its products are beautifully designed to create real benefits for the consumers. The most important thing is to stay relevant: If it isn’t relevant, the user will ignore it. Creativity, too, is called for. After all, to just send out pushy messages flagging the latest special offers is to ignore the opportunities which beacons provide.

DR. AXEL AVERDUNG is Head of Strategy at SinnerSchrader and develops innovative solutions for digital products and services.