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To Beacon, or Not To Beacon? Critical Reasons to Hang on to Your Wi-Fi

16 June, 2015 | Nader Fathi

 

Several weeks ago, I attended Beacon Week in San Francisco and was pleasantly surprised by the high interest level. It was also interesting to see the extent of attendee concern about outstanding issues they grapple with related to Beacons.

As the name suggests, beacons are devices​​ that send out Bluetooth low energy (BLE) broadcast messages. Beacons by themselves don’t do any sensing or tracking, they can be thought of simply as markers you’d find on a road. They can be placed around a venue or store to mark a location. An application installed on a smartphone can pick up these digital markers, and often times with the help of a backend server, it may be able to convert the digits to something meaningful like a coupon or to check in to a location. With help from beacons, a mobile app can be built to engage the end user to bridge the digital and physical buying process.

Gartner analyst Mike McGuire said in a recent blog post, “Beacons have been presented to the world as a cool new implementation of Bluetooth radio technology . . . there are two important (potential) benefits — the ability for a customer to come in range and receive product information or maybe even get a coupon or discount, and the ability to provide a grid of sensors to measure store traffic flow, footfalls etc.” 

Although beacon technology is widely available today, technology and hardware-related limitations, along with a lack of tangible results, pose challenges for adoption and reaching marketing potential.

First, consumers must have downloaded the relevant retailer, brand, or team app so that beacons can communicate with the device. (This also means the organization needs to develop the mobile app.)  In his post, McGuire paints a clear picture of where the readiness falls short as he describes his own (lack of a) beacon experience at Apple and Macy’s stores. “It was my bad. I needed to get a separate third-party app, Shopkick, to actually use the beacons. Macy’s own iOS app doesn’t recognize beacons.  Or if it does, they’ve managed to keep that hidden.”

Then, there’s finding the right frequency and content for pushed messages. In a recent Internet Retailer article “The buzz on beacons,” Sheryl Kingstone with IT research firm Yankee 451 Group explains that data on consumer adoption of beacons is scant and the number of consumers actually accepting beacon messages is very small. Once the needed app is downloaded, between 5% and 50% of consumers will open push notifications, depending on the message.

Thankfully, beacons are not the only way to learn about and engage mobile consumers.

Five Reasons to Marry Beacons and Wi-Fi 

The widespread adoption of mobile devices has also opened doors for unprecedented consumer and marketing benefits to be derived from Wi-Fi.  Wi-Fi-based location analytics have two prevalent consumer use cases:

  • First, location analytics, which uses advanced data mining configured for a specific business, estimates the number of visitors, how much time they spend in your location, and the frequency of their visits.

  • Then advanced analytics provides knowledge of the customers’ movement patterns while they are in your venue or store, so you can understand the preferred and more appealing locations. This is accomplished without the need to have an application installed on the smartphone, so all customers with a smartphone or wearable device that emits a Wi-Fi signal can be counted.

Beacons and passive Wi-Fi analytics are different and collect information in opposite ways. Beacons activate applications on a smartphone and it’s the smartphone that sends the location information to an aggregation point through, say your LTE data plan. Passive Wi-Fi analytics, on the other hand, collect useful data about an environment, such as the behavior of foot traffic using the existing store Wi-Fi infrastructure. Both beacons and Wi-Fi offer value and are complementary.  The combination of the two can provide for comprehensive analytics and customer engagement to both improve operations and boost sales and loyalty.

When you combine beacons and Wi-Fi technology – then add location analytics – you can use a single infrastructure to enable both analytics AND relevant personalized messaging. Major access point manufacturers are teaming with location analytics companies such as Kiana to offer hybrid Wi-Fi / BLE solutions to address beacon shortcomings and enable proximity marketing.

There are many reasons this hybrid model will be a key trend in 2016 and beyond. Wi-Fi-based location analytics make customer engagement a grounded reality. Here’s why:

  1. Device Readiness – Beacons only work on certain devices and without an open standard there is potential for “land grab” where beacons will work only with certain operating systems, such as Apple or Android. Wi-Fi technology is readily available in most parts of the world and can already be used with most Wi-Fi hardware to detect ALL Wi-Fi enabled devices, including smartphones, tablets and wearables. It’s also comparatively inexpensive.

  2. Battery Challenges – Beacons are simple devices with a short battery life needing replacement at some point each year (however, kontakt.io is working on a beacon battery with a three-year life). Finding where beacons are installed and changing 1,000+ batteries is an overwhelming exercise. There are no batteries required for Wi-Fi!

  3. App Reliance – Messages can’t be delivered to consumers unless they have downloaded an app and have allowed notifications, posing headaches for retailers seeking to run effective LBS campaigns. Wi-Fi doesn’t require visitors to open an app or have Bluetooth running. However, it requires a connection to the Internet to transfer data and (in order to interrupt someone with a message) they need to have logged onto the Wi-Fi or given permission in another way.

  4. Costly to Manage & Secure – How do you manage a deployment of 1,100 beacons? What if one stops working, dies, falls off a wall (like at the Brooklyn Museum), or gets moved or stolen, compromising the engagement experience? Beacons still need Wi-Fi or LTE to exist to connect to “mothership.”  

  5. Ad hoc Signals – The ability to pick up a signal from a Beacon varies: walls, doors and other physical objects will shorten signal range (Apple tells us the signals are also affected by water, which means the human body itself could affect the signals). The vast majority of consumers leave their device Wi-Fi turned on, making connectivity more consistent.

So, if your organization simply wants to offer employee connectivity or guest connectivity, Wi-Fi is sufficient. If you want to benefit from location analytics, you’ll want to explore a location-enabled Wi-Fi infrastructure. And, if you’re looking to engage visitors based on where they are in the venue or provide an indoor navigation experience, you might want to look into beacon technology along with apps that provide the two-way communication.

To learn more about Kiana’s Wi-Fi location-based analytics, visit www.kianaanalytics.com