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The story of Beacons

Following an afternoon full of presentations and panels concerning the Bluetooth Low Energy technology at the 3rd Beacon Summit at our head offices in Munich, I got into a discussion with two other attendees. It was clear that all of us understood how this technology works: A small sender (Beacon) sends out a signal that almost any mobile device can read/detect. If your mobile device has Bluetooth activated and is within about 30 meters of the sender, it can read/detect the signal. If you have the right app, the signal can be interpreted and used to identify where you are and send you messages.

It is a very simple and fairly robust technology that anyone can use. Many companies have already stepped into the Beacon market and even Apple, Facebook and Google are investing heavily. A lot of people are investing a lot of money, a lot of time and waging their businesses and quality of life on this technology.

So what can you do with it? Well, there are a couple of standard showcase ideas. Indoor Navigation and Retail Push are the most common scenarios. Say you arrive at the airport and need to go to gate G49. You have no idea where that is, but by using Beacons, your location and the location of the gate are known and our app can easily get you from where you are to where you want to go. The same basic idea with a twist accounts for the other scenario: You enter a retail store and instantly get a notification on your mobile device telling you that the blue jeans are on offer. The jeans are located right next to you, on your right. – And here’s a 5€ coupon to sweeten the deal.

After two minutes of polite small talk, my fellow attendees and I got into an interesting discussion: Are indoor navigation and retail coupons that interesting? And if it works that well, why isn’t it already everywhere?

Sometimes we tend to geek out about the possibilities and forget the actual use case. We wait for a technology to solve our problems, missing the fact that our problems might actually just be the symptoms of a larger one.

Say you are a retailer. You sell jeans. You want people to buy more jeans. If your solution is to point your customers to the exact jeans you want to sell, give them a 5€ discount, lean back and wait to see your sales numbers soar, you have a bigger problem.

Why we buy stuff is simple: Maslow’s hierarchy tells us we have needs concerning physiology, safety, love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization in that order.

How we choose what to buy falls in those just-to-the-right-of–the-middle categories. We buy stuff to find and signalize belonging and to gain esteem from our peers and ourselves. So we don’t (just) buy jeans because we wouldn’t survive the winter without them, but also because we would become outcasts and lose our self-respect if we went to work without them.

What exact kind of jeans we choose doesn’t really matter on the account of needs. Of course if you produce jeans and want to increase your sales, it matters to you. But not to me. I just want to show up at work wearing jeans.

However, telling a great story will help move my opinion from one product to another. And that will change my attitude. People stand in line for days to get the latest iPhone but complain if there’s more than five people in front of them at the supermarket. Why? Because the story of the iPhone is better than that of Broccoli*.

So instead of just offering me a 5€ discount, tell me the story of your product. Let me know where I fit into that story and what my role is. Engage with me on an emotional level. And before you go buying Beacons because it’s the Next Big Thing, take a step back and answer these questions first: What kind of story do we want to tell, and what technology might help us tell it in a way that is relevant for the end customer? How do we engage with our customers, take them by their hand and start telling a story together?

Beacons might be a vital part of the solution, but don’t expect the technology to deliver the sales by itself. The story is more important than a technological framework. And if you need help with figuring out exactly what the story should be, how to tell it or what technology fits in where, I know a great agency for that!

*Actually, the man-made(!) vegetable Broccoli has an extremely interesting history. So maybe Broccoli has to have a talk with it’s advertising agency about telling the story in a better way?