The Way (Not Just the Where) of Beacons

 By PYMNTS

More and more, it seems as though everybody wants (or already has) a beacon in their place of business. But not everybody is using them in the right way — for themselves or for their consumers.

As Kevin Hunter, Chief Operating Officer of Gimbal, and MPD CEO Karen Webster discussed on a podcast recently, there’s a lot more to beacon technology than just pinging messages to customers when they’re in your vicinity. If leveraged correctly, beacons can be used to enhance the customer experience with personalized engagement, building loyalty and providing entirely new revenue streams.

Gimbal recently released its firmware licensing solution, enabling any BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) device to act as a Gimbal beacon, something that Hunter says the company is “very excited about.”

What spurred the release, he told Webster, was simply a request from Gimbal’s partners. Knowing the unique, incremental and differentiated value that the technology could bring to their physical items, these companies desired to integrate it into new or existing products that were already Bluetooth enabled — and Gimbal obliged.

By commercializing that firmware, Gimbal has enabled its customers to license it on multiple chips and multiple operating system environments, allowing them to integrate it into their components, such as vending machines, ATMs and jukeboxes — things that Hunter explains “have a unique value proposition, especially for beacons.”

Hunter also shared with Webster that the wireless access point company Ruckus Wireless will be integrating Gimbal firmware into its access points going forward.

Remarks Hunter, “it’s pretty exciting to think about how many access points there are in the world and the chance for them to become beacons, making localized mobile engagement that much better.”

As for what makes retailers and venues so interested in the opportunity to “beacon-ize” (as Webster puts it) those points of access and interaction, Hunter says that what Gimbal has found, across all the different verticals, is that those venues are “all trying to find ways to make the on-location experience better. Be it a retailer, a hotel, a transportation authority or airport, they’re all trying to make sure that customers can get the most of the experience when they’re there.”

A corollary to this discussion of beacons, Webster observes, is the issue of digital ownership — the question of who owns the mobile engagement opportunity that beacons provide.

Hunter is straightforward about Gimbal’s stance on the matter: “We believe that if you buy a beacon or you integrate firmware into your component to make it a beacon, you should own that engagement with your customers when they’re at your place. You should decide which applications have access to the beacon signal.

“There are many un-secured beacons out there today. That means that once you buy and install one of those beacons, you physically own it, but you don’t digitally own it. Basically, you’ve bought infrastructure that others can access without authorization.”

For Gimbal, Hunter goes on to say, “it was important for whoever’s buying the infrastructure to have control of what the experience should be for the customers and users at that location. That control allows them to decide what partners and applications get access to participate in that customer experience.”

Businesses that partner with Gimbal, Hunter adds, also find an opportunity for new revenue models — for example, a retailer can share (or rent, or lease) access to its beacons to a shopping app with perhaps a substantially larger user base than the store’s own app, thereby gaining access to millions more potential customers.

With all the notifications that beacons can enable, there is, of course, the risk of customers being essentially harassed, which Webster raises.

Hunter agrees with that concern, and asserts that Gimbal is out in front of it.

“As a consumer first, I want to make sure that I’m protected inside the places I want to go. I don’t necessarily want to be randomly messaged by somebody looking into a beacon inside the store with information that doesn’t apply to or improve my shopping experience.”

The aforementioned digital ownership allows retailers to protect consumers, making sure that customers are given what they need and that others are not taking advantage of their locations.

This adherence to customer protection carries over into the best practices that Gimbal recommends merchants follow when they are considering using beacons to engage their customers.

“First and foremost,” Hunter says, “we want them to respect the consumer, to make sure that any and all communication with them is truly warranted.”

What Hunter views as one of the most interesting things happening in retail right now is that the store conforms to the consumer when he or she is inside of it: a phenomenon that can be beneficial to both parties.

“Instead of just trying to communicate with the consumer by sending the first message that pops up on his or her phone, maybe they can guide the consumer experience via a loyalty program of which he or she is a member — make it more nuanced and personalized, while still initiated by the consumer’s presence at a location.”

Hunter points out that this nuanced approach has yet to catch on with a lot of retailers, to their detriment. The focus shouldn’t be on sending customers messages, he attests; rather, “[retailers] should be trying to achieve the serendipitous moment for the consumer when the store changes for them, and becomes relevant once they’re inside of it.”

It’s those “natural moments,” Hunter believes, that can help to give consumers information that will actually change the way they buy.

In addition to the digital ownership model, an aspect that Hunter explains sets Gimbal apart is the level of security that its technology provides throughout the entire platform.

“Another thing that distinguishes us,” he tells Webster, “is that we’re not just a beacon company; we’re more of a location proximity and engagement solution.”

Which is to say, while beacons are one component of Gimbal’s overall solution, the platform provides additional features that help drive for retailers and venues a better understanding of the consumers before they’re even at their locations.

That, Gimbal clarifies further, “will help build the data set that you eventually base your engagement methods on once they are there, which is a very important decision.”

So that its clients can gain a better understanding of their audiences before they visit their places of businesses, Gimbal provides them with the technology “to draw geofences around particular stores, ZIP codes and the like.”

As Webster and Hunter begin to wrap up their conversation, Hunter shares a couple of noteworthy examples of Gimbal technology that are currently in play.

One is Touchtunes, a digital jukebox company whose 70,000-plus jukeboxes in bars and restaurants Hunter describes as a “great platform for leveraging engagement with customers at those locations.” In addition to facilitating mobile payments and mobile cueing (wherein a customer can play music on the jukebox from wherever he or she is inside the restaurant or bar), Gimbal technology enables Touchtunes to deliver relevant engagements to interested consumers.

Another example of Gimbal technology at work is in PlaceWise Media. With Gimbal technology, PlaceWise adds beacons to its proximity marketing layer of Wi-Fi and geofencing capabilities. PlaceWise’s private digital network of nearly 700 centers nationwide, currently exceeding 10 million monthly visitors, will be able to reach a broader audience of on-premise shoppers through all three components of mobile engagement.

“In general,” concludes Hunter, “with everything we’re doing, it really is about a network of networks working together and understanding the audience flow to find the best way to engage with them.”