What Are Bluetooth Beacons and Why Do They Matter?

Today I went to Einstein Bros. Bagels, picked up lunch for the family, and went about my day. Later that afternoon I started getting Einstein Bros. Bagels’ ads in my Instagram feed. I hadn’t googled them, been on their website, or used Google Maps to find their location. But I did drive up to their storefront and walk in, with my phone in my pocket.

And it got me thinking about the different methods of proximity targeting but, in particular, bluetooth beacons.

Rather innocuous and insidious, bluetooth beacons are a cheap and effective way to target people with the precision of a couple of feet. Maybe just walking into Einstein’s was the trigger for me to receive these ads.

How Bluetooth Beacons Can Benefit Businesses

It’s not just ads that these beacons can help trigger, but realtime, actionable notifications that businesses can use to personalize the purchasing experience for their customers. Beacons are also affordable, portable, and run on very little power. A beacon can cost less than $20 and the batteries can last up to 5 years.

There are a variety of ways businesses can, and have been, implementing beacon technology:

Kew Gardens, a botanical garden in London, used beacons as an alternative to WiFi in improving the visitor experience whilst reducing costs by 93%. Through the beacons, visitors would receive push notifications on their phones with specific information relevant to the different plants, buildings and history around the 300-acre UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Panera Bread uses beacons to improve the efficiency of their curbside pickup options. The bluetooth beacons alert the restaurant team when a logged-in user has pulled up in front of their restaurant and a team member is alerted if a customer has arrived and can be given the correlative user information (such as the model and color of car they drive), and then rapidly take the correct order and take it to the correct car.

The Rubens House brought a new digital dimension to their displays by deploying beacons below the artwork. Users were nudged on their phones or tablets for more information about the artwork they were looking at, including x-rays of the paintings or audio explanations from experts.

This all sounds high-tech and futuristic, convenient and useful – so why does it keep me up at night?

Bluetooth beacons are a relatively new and under-regulated technology that can be exploited by bad actors. Most of us have our phones on us at all times when we leave our homes, and beacons are a way for people to access the most sensitive and sacred personal information about us – our day-to-day activities.

Marketing Tool or Surveillance Technology?

Beacons can be placed where we work, where we socialize, where we shop, or where we worship.

Political campaigns know where you’ve been. The pro-Trump organization CatholicVote used geofencing to build a target audience of frequent Mass-goers, commodifying something personal and sacred – going to church. They used this information to target groups of people that might agree with their political agenda, with messaging they assumed would resonate because of their faith practices.

Though this could equally be used for what some might deem good causes. The Wall Street Journal has reported that protests, such as the Black Lives Matter protests, have allowed for voting advocacy groups to target non-voters with prompts to register to vote. I’m all for more voters. But we’ve seen in recent history how sensitive data can be collected, exploited, and misused with severe consequences to sway elections.

The intention might be good, but that potential reach is scary. Recent exposés on the racial biases of facial recognition technology, coupled with the blanket approach to uncover people with outstanding warrants disproportionately affects people of color. In 2016, the ACLU revealed:

“Police were using [facial recognition] software during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown in 2014 and protests in Baltimore following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray to find, and in some cases, arrest protesters with outstanding warrants.”

Geolocation tracking, though, is also potentially infringing on our constitutional rights, and giving a whole new meaning to the idea of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Proximity marketing tools have been used by law enforcement to trace the perpetrators of crimes, but flagging innocent people in the process. Our proximity to a beacon might make us suspicious without any other evidence.

Is It Okay To Use Beacons As Part Of My Marketing Strategy?

When beacon technology is used safely and overtly, it will be able to efficiently deliver personalized marketing and consumer experiences in a way that enhances a user’s experience with a business. Social Media Today sees hyper-personalization being a major and important shift in marketing in 2020, though they point out that it works best when content is engaging, relevant and trustworthy, where specific needs are being met through the use of this technology.

To be trustworthy, information should flow from the advertiser to the user without collecting or abusing location data. I would like to see more opportunities for an API, like with browser push notifications, to act as an intermediary between the advertiser and the end user. With the right processes and regulations, beacon technology can be useful to both businesses and consumers without user data being exploited.