In the few months since Apple released the iPhone 6 and unveiled its new iWatch, the tech world has been largely focused on the hardware. Much has been written about the larger screen size, increased pixel count, and of course, the future of wearables.
What has gotten less coverage, but should be of far greater interest to marketers, is the software that powers these new products, specifically Apple’s decision to upgrade iBeacon technology in iOS 8.
NB: This is a viewpoint from Joe Stanhope, SVP of Marketing at Signal.
Apple’s upgrade lays the ground work for collecting location-based events and engagement attribute data, giving travel marketers far greater insight into the behavior of their customers across channels as well as the ability to act on those insights in real time.
The iBeacon is Apple’s version of the quickly growing Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) proximity-aware transmitting devices, Beacons. These small and inexpensive transmitters can be used by travel brands to communicate with consumers on their smartphones while they’re physically present at locations such as airports and hotels.
Here’s how it works: A hotel will place these transmitters in strategic spots around the property. These transmitters emit a low energy Bluetooth signal, and if a consumer’s device has a Beacon-enabled app installed, that signal can issue an information push notification -- an alert for a special offer, or request and collect data from the app.
While iBeacon technology has been supported since the release of iOS 7, the new updates give the product more legitimacy, and should give travel marketers greater confidence to experiment with new services that can enhance a traveler’s real-world experience.
So what are some of the essential new iBeacon features in the recent iOS 8 update?
The big change from iOS 7 to iOS 8 is that iBeacon is now opt-in.
In the past, it was possible to collect users’ MAC addresses (unique device identifiers communicated while networking with other computer and servers) whenever a traveler’s phone tried connecting with a hotel or airport Wi-Fi network. That information allowed a hotel, for example, to track a guest around the property.
On a technical front that means that if a travel company wants to collect data from brick-and-mortar engagements, they’ll have install iBeacon code into their mobile apps so that code can listen out for the iBeacon BLE signals.
The greater benefit is that enhanced privacy protections will give travelers and marketers greater confidence to adopt iBeacon technology because when they opt-in, they’re making an affirmative choice to exchange some of their privacy for an improved consumer experience.
Rumored additional UI features
It wasn’t mentioned in the release of iOS 8, but there are reports of User Interface enhancements allowing for less-obtrusive Beacon-initiated iPhone notifications that appear on the lock-screen.
In a few test locations, according to Apple Insider, an icon appears in the bottom left-hand corner of the lock-screen. Reportedly, that icon is a prompt that, when engaged, will direct a user to a location-based app.
This passive notification approach should encourage iPhone users to opt-in to the Location-Tracking Services in iOS 8 and keep their Bluetooth capabilities turned on (something many users don’t do to save battery life, although Apple is reportedly addressing that problem).
The main takeaway here is that less intrusive iBeacon notifications will increase the iBeacon audience, providing more scale and incentive for both travelers and travel companies to adopt the technology.
With that in mind, it’s time for travel marketers to start thinking about how they will best use the technology.
Beacon benefit #1: Streamlined services
One of the first scenarios that comes to mind when travel marketers discuss Beacons is the ability to streamline services to improve a traveler’s journey.
Emirates Airline has already begun experimenting with iBeacon to help fliers find their gate, alert them to boarding times, gauge security wait times, and help them track their luggage. Virgin Atlantic has also begun experimenting with iBeacon to give passengers customized offers like commission-free currency exchange deals in the departures section of the airport as well as information about in-flight entertainment options prior to boarding.
Starwood Hotels & Resorts is running an iBeacon trial in 30 of its hotels and resorts that helps concierges greet arriving guests by name, accelerates the check-in process for frequent guests, and lets housekeeping know when guests are still in the room.
Starwood is also experimenting with a Beacon-enabled program that allows guests to skip the check-process entirely and go straight to their room. Those guests will be able to enter their rooms upon arrival by using their phones in lieu of a traditional room key.
Beacon benefit #2: Observability
Similar to how web analytics are utilized, data generated through Beacon technology has the potential to provide deep insight into traveler activity and engagement in airports and hotel properties. Airlines, for example, will be able to better understand how passengers move through terminals, giving them information that can be used to make the boarding process more efficient.
Hotels will also be able to leverage observation data to better design properties around how guests actually use the facilities. That same data will also provide hotels with more detailed insights so they can allocate staff around their guests’ needs.
But these are relatively small examples of how travel companies can use Beacons to increase observability. The larger, and more important opportunity comes at the organizational level, because Beacons provide marketers with the missing data needed to assemble a complete view of a traveler’s engagement across channels.
As the adoption of Beacons increases, an advertiser’s universal view of their consumers will slowly come into focus. Scalable access to this data is a game changer for those advertisers who have the means of stitching together traveler profile IDs across channels, which is a tremendous undertaking in and of itself.
As the adoption of Beacons—and specifically iBeacon, given the pervasiveness of iOS—increases, the travel industry will gain greater visibility into real-world consumer behavior and enjoy enhanced capabilities when it comes to streamlining travel services.
Scalable access to this crucial data is a game changer for all travel companies, but especially those brands that have the means of combining offline insights with online data across channels.
Here’s what marketers need to know today so they can prepare for a coming wave of consumer data that will likely include Beacons:
- Streamlined services, like those described above, are experimental, so it’s important for travel marketers to maintain a testing mindset as they develop strategies for personalizing real-world interactions with travelers.
- The opportunity to integrate iBeacon activity as another channel into the cross channel customer journey mix enables a more holistic view of the customer.
- Marketers should acknowledge that interactions online and in the real-world are fundamentally different experiences. Accordingly, it will take time for travel brands to create best practices around when, how, and what to message travelers during real-world interactions.
- The anticipated adoption of Beacons underscores the need for future-proof marketing technology that can seamlessly integrate new channels and tools into an organization’s existing infrastructure.
Leading travel brands have already started preparing for this fast-approaching wave of consumer data. They know that their invested relationships with sophisticated CRM, mobile app, and browser-based technologies will only be as strong as their ability to communicate real-time data and consumer insights between them.
Utilizing the data generated through the adoption of iBeacons will present one of the biggest obstacles and opportunities that today’s travel marketers have ever seen.
NB: Smartphone image courtesy Shutterstock.