5 things you need to know about BLE beacons

  • Beacons could be used to push a marketing message, navigate people through a location and sense traffic flow, or dwell time.

  • Given the potential for interference from metal, walls and even people, you can't put beacons up anywhere.

With more and more consumers carrying a smartphone, companies are looking for new ways to engage both consumers and employees with personalized and contextual services. A wide range of companies, such as retailers, stadiums, and medical facilities, are piloting and deploying Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons to deliver more precise indoor location-based services. A beacon is a small device that transmits a signal to a smartphone to share its proximity to the beacon. BLE beacons are low-power devices that use small batteries, such as coin cells. Unlike GPS, beacon technology works indoors and is sensitive to distances under a meter. But beacon technology isn’t without challenges. There are several things a business should know to assess if BLE makes sense for the company. For example,

1. Beacons require a mobile app.

BLEs transmit signals that can be received and acted upon by a mobile application. The intelligence of what is received and how the app responds are decisions that are made as part of the mobile app design process and part of the content design process (normally sales and marketing content but it could be other content). Without a mobile app, BLEs are useless.

2. You need to know what you want to communicate.

The beacons aren’t smart. They transmit signals, not content. You have to code what that signal means in your app. This sounds easy, but it requires planning. For example, beacons could be used to push a marketing message, navigate people through a location and sense traffic flow, or dwell time. You must understand what you are trying to accomplish before you can’t effectively define the right content and proper location for beacons.

3. Beacons aren’t as good as WiFi for overall customer analytics.

With beacons, a company can only capture analytics on the users that have downloaded the app. If the store is using Wi-Fi for location services, it can capture basic information, such as entering the building, from every user that has Wi-Fi turned on and has associated at least once with the Wi-Fi network. The best solution is to combine beacon efforts with WLAN data to provide comprehensive location information.

4. Placement requires solid planning.

Theoretically, the app would pick up the beacon signal that is closest to the user. However, metal, walls and even people can impact beacons signals. Given the potential for interference, you don’t just throw beacons up anywhere. Many locations (retail stores, warehouses, stadiums, museums) have to tweak placement to minimize interference from metal and walls.

5. Management isn’t as easy as you think.

Many companies start with small deployments and achieve great results. Larger deployments that span multiple locations aren’t as easy. A company must consider how it will install beacons and manage beacons remotely. Lost beacons aren’t easy to detect without scanning the facility. While beacon vendors offer management, it is normally tied to their systems, making it difficult to switch vendors or maintain a multi-vendor environment. This is one area where companies can look to service providers or WLAN vendors that offer beacon support services.

Beacons hold tremendous opportunity to deliver contextual information based on proximity. However, companies need to do proper planning to get the most out of beacon technology.


Maribel Lopez is the CEO and mobile market strategist for Lopez Research, a market research and strategy consulting firm that specializes in communications technologies with a heavy emphasis on the disruptive nature of mobile technologies. All opinions are her own. AT&T has sponsored this blog post.



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