Bringing Home the Beacon


I keep reading very positive articles and blog posts about how iBeacons and, in general, BLE beacons will forever change how we experience the physical world, how shopping environments will be reinvented, and how we might now be able to finally close the loop between online and offline consumer experiences.

As seducing as it may sound, this beacon-centric vision always misses a harsh reality: without consumer opt-in, you don’t have anything.

As with any marketplace, there’s two sides of the equation with their own specific friction points:

  • Physical deployment of beacons: the hardware is cheap, robust and, in some cases, even elegant. But you still need to get it deployed. Might be fast, might be slower than expected, but it will take some time
  • Pervasive integration of each SDK in apps. At the core of the solution, you still need a consumer opt-in. You need the user to download an app that includes the SDK of the beacon manufacturer. And you also need that consumer to have bluetooth on. 

A lot of over-optimistic articles point out retailers as the first wave of early adopters. Now have some fun and go check the apps of your biggest retailers: check Macy’s for example. Arguably, the most successful of these retailers (retail in the broad sense of offline commerce) is Starbucks along with Walgreens behind. When you check rankings in downloads, Starbucks comes in only at #100, Walgreens at #142 and then, way behind, Target at #347.

It’s safe to say that downloads are minimums for the large majority of retailers. Without an app though, no communication with the users in your store. The alternate strategy would be to push your SDK in someone’s else app. Also skeptical on that: mostly because I feel that mobile SDKs are the new, “let me drop a quick javascript on the back of your website…” There’s an overload of mobile SDKs that are trying to do anything from tracking usage, pushing ads, retargeting etc.

For beacons to become the large opportunity that most of the journalists are excited about, you’ll need the onboarding of a few very large players. This is who I think could move the needle:

  • OS players like Apple and Android could change the game by making the iBeacon messaging opt-out rather than opt-in. There’s plenty of user experience and privacy issues with such a decision, but if beacons are actually widespread, there’s also the opportunity of creating an “Adsense for the physical world.” 
  • OEMs, in conjunction with OS players could go after the same opportunity. Samsung is an obvious and likely candidate.
  • Very, very large mobile app players could embrace the SDK in their app if there’s a tight integration with their product. Facebook immediately comes to mind: tying up FB SMBs pages with offline messaging opportunity, tying up sponsored posts and FB ads with an offline extension. Right behind, you could imagine Yelp or Foursquare (although probably lacking critical mass to make it relevant).

In the meantime, stop telling me that the deployment of 250 beacons in Apple stores is changing the game. It’s not, yet.