Beacons: The Next Kitten-Killer?

If you enter my office at work, you’ll see one book prominently displayed for all to see: Scott Stratten’s “QR Codes Kill Kittens.” Abundant with humor, the premise is, if we thought a new marketing program would kill a kitten, would we still do it? The book showcases all the crazy ways marketing professionals have tried to use QR codes to communicate with customers—and failed miserably. And, the underlying message is that not thinking through one’s marketing efforts first and foremost by looking through the eyes of the customer is a shameful offense.

My own experiences with QR codes were watching consumers attempt to download and install apps, search for their password, perform the “forgot password” function, finally download the app, struggle to use the app, focus the app’s newly (and radically) designed “camera viewfinder” on the QR code, retry to focus on the QR code, swear profusely over the !@#!@#! QR code, then close the phone and walk away, steaming about the stupidity of the whole experience.

In short, I saw very few positive QR-code experiences with any user group other than the early adopter, techno-savvy who could probably find ways to translate ancient Sanskrit writings to Klingon using an obscure app if it meant a 5% discount on their order.

So why am I telling you all this? And, what does this have to do with beacons?

My fear is that if we’re not careful, history may repeat itself with beacons; we will see yet another marketing kitten-killer. Beacons have huge potential for communicating with and providing value to consumers in retail. But, as marketing professionals, we have to think through the experience of first using beacons, and then what we want the experience to be going forward:

  • We have to make it simple, easy and “just work” for the user. Early attempts at deploying beacons mandated that consumers have an application installed and enabled on their mobile device in order to talk to the beacon and receive any value, thereby making first-use a bit intimidating for consumers, just like with QR codes. But, Facebook’s recent news to enable beacons as part of their Local offerings, and Google’s recent news of their Eddystone version of the beacon protocols that allows users without an app to receive messages, are already putting this issue to rest. However, moving forward we will all need to work toward unified solutions that simply “ just work” for any consumer with a mobile device.
  • It must be more than a couponing vehicle. Most conversations on beacons have focused on coupons, discounts and other alerts that I believe consumers will soon ignore, dismiss or even turn off—especially if they are not contextually relevant to the consumer and their desired experience. If beacons just become a very loud voice that shouts at consumers on price, they will fail in all but select environments (mostly rug stores going out of business in the next 48 hours that sell on fear and price).
  • It cannot be a “technology-first” mindset for deployment. Beacons could be another great example of an industry getting excited about using the latest and greatest thing, without ever connecting with the consumer or why they would even want this in the first place! This myopic approach is a good way to throw marketing spend away.

Beacons hold tremendous promise for in-store marketing to enable campaigns that are contextually relevant and even personalized. But, realizing this opportunity requires an understanding of who the consumer is, their path to purchase and what they really need or want at any point in time to properly integrate beacons into the experience to maximize ROI.

Beacons could be the next great thing to bring the brick-and-mortar shopping experience back to relevance for the consumer. Or, it could be yet another kitten-killer. But, we’re holding out hope for the former and not the latter. And we’re working with clients daily to make this a reality. So, what do you think? Next great thing in brick-and-mortar marketing or kitten-killer? Would love to hear your thoughts!

Gary Lee is the CEO of InReality

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