by Doug

03/02/2016

Google Analytics, Google Tag Manager, Internet Marketing

Connect the physical world with the online world using beacons

Intro

As readers of this blog, you are all super-smart digital marketers and will probably have, at some point, walked or driven past an advertising hoarding and felt a certain smug superiority over the offline advertising world.

You know that you can accurately quantify the return on investment of your online advertising so how can these offline adverts possibly compete in terms of performance or afford the same opportunities for personalisation and optimisation at scale?

Well, now they can. Here’s how using beacons.

Basic concepts

For this post I’m going to talk about the Eddystone beacon specification. It’s Google’s take on beacon technology. It’s a little different to the Apple iBeacon in that it’ll work on both Android and iOS devices (well, any device capable of receiving Bluetooth actually), doesn’t necessarily need an app and has some helpful super-powers.

If you haven’t heard of beacons, they’re very simple low powered Bluetooth devices that broadcast data. The idea is that mobile devices can receive these messages and then “do stuff”. Exactly what is up to you, the super-smart, inspired digital marketer.

For example, over 1000 beacons were in use at CES this year with varying degrees of success…. Even the renowned and legendary technology pioneer, The London Underground, is trialling beacon technology to assist visually impaired customers. Neat.

How might this be useful for measuring ROI of physical, real world ads? The power of the solution is in capturing the context of the beacon interaction in the message being advertised by the beacon.

First, decide on the desired outcome of the ad. You could send plain text. You could awaken an app and personalise the user experience. You could invoke a particular marketing campaign. We’ll start simple though and just advertise a landing page URL. We want people to visit our landing page and we want to know they came to the site via a link advertised from a beacon. Deciding what the purpose of the beacon advertisement is will add structure to the meta-data payload.

Treating the beacon as an acquisition channel is nice and easy as we can just decorate the advertised URL with utm parameters. The analytical insights this simple technique can open up is very exciting. Remember, as well as the meta-data we add to the URL, the HTTP protocol will add a truckload of valuable treasure to the request too.

When a user decides to visit the utm decorated URL advertised by the beacon, their visit can be tracked by GA and we’ll see the source, medium, campaign, content and keyword data from the utm parameters which is great for the acquisition reports but also pretty mind blowing to consider that we now have physical advertising channels in the attribution reports too.

We get to see location data in addition to the channel data. We’ll know if users chose to open the advertised link at the location of the beacon or if it was saved for clicking on later.

If we have an existing user who decided to log in, we have super extra shiny cross device data to add to our physical advertising data.

The list of new and exciting wonderfulness goes on…

To battle hardened digital marketing people, these signals are staple ingredients that satisfy an appetite for insights. Insights lead to optimisation opportunities. These optimisation opportunities are now quantifiable like never before for real world advertising.

Hardware

What can you use as a beacon? There is a wealth of choice out there:

I’ve chosen a couple of devices to test and develop a solution on. Chrome devices are capable of Eddystone advertising using BLE as is the Tessel.

Like the idea of powering smart advertising devices using a cheapo ChromeBit?

Power…

Development, testing, proof of concept. All good fun but the real world needs to scale. The devices are coming down in price all the time but the elephant in room is how long the beacons last in the wild. Days? Weeks? Months? Battery technology is coming on in leaps and bounds but there is another solution. It looks like witchcraft but Freevolt is a very real technology that means low energy devices can be powered perpetually. Outstanding, exciting and liberating. Quite wonderful.

Software

Nothing too spectacular here. A simple Chrome App to do the advertising:

We enable BLE advertising for apps:
chrome://flags/#enable-ble-advertising-in-apps

The GA/GTM side of things is pretty simple. We choose to fire a non-interaction event when a user lands on the site from a beacon as well as using the source medium:

That’s all the software writing that’s needed. Very few moving parts…you just need to know which parts move and how.

Next?

Once you’ve got your beacon broadcasting, mobile devices need to be able to receive the messages.

I suggest trying Physical Web which is available for both Android and iOS:

You could also use Chrome Dev. You’ll need to navigate to chrome://flags/#enable-physical-web and enable the feature to see beacon messages in the status bar.

Using the Physical Web app, our beacon advertises a link to our website offering a link to click:

We click the link and land on the site which is recorded by GA using the technique described above. Simple.

The user chooses to interact – there is no automatic connection so the ad impression is not recorded – just the interaction. So we have a click through rate but no impression data. Not a perfect world but we have to respect the user’s privacy. We choose the market and measure responsibly.

The techniques described so far are easily deployable now but there is a question of user traction. Who knows about the Physical Web and who wants to install a dev version of Chrome? Mobile Operating System manufacturers (Google and Apple) need to surface this functionality clearly to accelerate adoption.

The question of beacon management at scale also still needs to be addressed:

Chrome devices can be managed remotely and at scale. The Eddystone telemetry broadcast enables simple devices to be managed. PHY.net is a service providing remote control for the physical web.

The Beacon Management space seems to be ripe for innovation. Watch this space.

Equally, while beacon advertising standards have been defined, scope for change has been deliberately left wide. The capabilities of the telemetry frame are yet to be exploited. Clearly the beacon space is growing in traction but is still immature. As this post has shown, the technologies are quite approachable so what are you waiting for?

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