beacons: we've heard the talk, now let's look at the action

Beacons (called ‘iBeacons’ by Apple) are small, wireless transmitters that broadcast to mobile devices. Available since 2006 they hit prime time last year, when retailers began widespread beacon deployments. We take a look at the beacon applications that are driving digital transformation today.

sweeping deployment

High street brands (from Tesco to Ted Baker, from Brent Cross to Regent Street) are using the technology to communicate directly with customers. They know communication like this works wonders for the new digital customer journey, which is why US retail beacon deployment across US retail will hit 85 percent next year, up 77 percent since 2014.

The location-based contextual communication offered by beacons means most retailers use them to beam offers and product information to customers via retailer-specific apps.

However, the potential of the tech isn’t confined to push marketing…

personalized marketing

Unilever is experimenting with using beacons to help it identify how consumers feel about its brands so it can target them with personalized mobile ads. It is working with Glimr, a data specialist firm, and Mindshare on a pilot scheme in Sweden. When consumers visited a Knorr-branded food truck to sample the soup they were retargeted with a mobile ad offering discount coupons. This was beamed to them when they opened the Aftonbladet Swedish newspaper app. Unilever will run similar tests in UK supermarkets this year.

The aim is to use beacons to track customer preferences and behavior to personalize the digital customer journey – from the prices on offer to the in-store ads customers might see. There’s more of this to come, shopping center developer, Hammerson, has installed beacons across its many locations. “We have strengthened our team with digital and loyalty experts and invested in class-leading analytic platforms to ensure that the true value of this data is realized,” the company said.

health and medical

US firm, Practice CoPilot, has developed Maestro for the eye care industry. Maestro uses beacons to track the exact location of every patient, staff member and doctor in the practice. Clever features such as patient color-coding provides staff with real-time information about how long a patient has been kept waiting. That’s good because it should accelerate patient treatment, and also provides medical practices with detailed patient flow, staffing and other analytics which should help drive new efficiencies in service provision. Similarly, beacons can be used to track medical equipment in large hospitals.

sporting events

Major League Baseball teams including the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors now use beacons at their games. These are designed to send messages to sports fans via the team’s app installed on their device. Messages may include pricing, team communication, special offers, public safety announcements and personalized content. Some installations also offer seat upgrades and seat finding tools.

museums and art galleries

The Cleveland Museum of Art and Guggenheim Museum are just two of many museums and art galleries to deploy beacons in order to provide visitors with useful information. Maps, suggested tours and exhibit recommendations, in-depth detail on exhibit, written, spoken and video assets are all provided using beacons and apps (ArtLens at the Guggenheim). Kew Gardens has installed 50 beacons to inform visitors and get them involved in garden activities, as has Disneyworld. It’s not just about communication and information, the institutions can also track visitor activity to help ensure exhibits are in the right place.


In the same way, beacons can provide conference attendees with the information they need: maps, directions to specific exhibitors or facilities, and new ways to maintain contact during events with people you meet. That’s not all – beacons can let you know when new presentations are made, and potentially enable sharing of presentation slides and notes. Australia’s Pause Fest also asked presentation attendees to rate keynotes – and shared free drinks vouchers, of course.

public transit/city management

Local government in Santiago, Chile, rolled out a beacon-based traffic monitoring and management system. Given most drivers have smartphones, the system tracked cars by identifying them as they passed between beacons. This gives city management a good picture of traffic flow, enabling them to make better traffic management decisions. Some US public transit locations use beacons to keep an eye on passenger flow and in order to deliver personalized route and timetabling information. At San Francisco airport a network of beacons and an accompanying app enable visually impaired people to navigate the terminal.

social media

Beacons aren’t just about bringing the real world into the digital, they also bring the digital world into the here and now. That at least is the hope of Facebook, which recently announced plans to test beacons deployed in specific areas in order to provide its users with specific local content. Also available over Wi-Fi the service is called ‘Place Tips’ and delivers information derived from a location’s Facebook page into user’s news feeds. Facebook also wants to use these tracking tools to understand ads effectiveness – do users who see an online ad later visit a locally recommended retail store to purchase a product?


Beacon-based solutions for wearable devices are already in production. The Guggenheim Museum is exploring new apps for Apple Watch and big US supermarket chain, Marsh, is making a similar attempt. Marsh has begun beacon deployment across its retail stores and hopes to provide Apple Watch users with offers and in-app shopping lists. Conde Nast and WebMD are also rumored to be working on beacon-based solutions for wearables.

There are many ways beacons can be used. That’s why 54 percent of mobile marketers are expected to use them in the next 12 months.

Orange has been working with beacon technology since inception, so contact us for help and advice on how to use 

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.