This isn’t science fiction—it’s a moment brought to you by beacon technologies, and it’s already possible. As with the early days of online dating, it may seem weird for a couple of years, but soon we’ll be offended if brands don’t offer this sort of personalized experience. Technology threatened to ruin brick-and-mortar business forever when sites such as Amazon taught us that if we could wait one day, then we could have anything we wanted without leaving the house. Now, technology is poised to make interactive experiences more intimate than ever.
Beacon technologies promise a customer experience that, while tailored to individuals, also provides brands with unprecedented insight. The last time customers and companies had this kind of rapport was in the Leave It to Beaver days when the local shopkeeper knew the soda preferences of every person in his idyllic small town. Now, even national retailers with hundreds of locations and millions of customers can provide that same personalized shopping experience previously reserved for one-light towns in rural America.
Brands today can “remember” a customer regardless of who’s working the store or how many visitors have come by that day. This transforms the sales experience from a helter-skelter guessing game into an efficient and caring dose of retail therapy. When implemented tastefully, it’s also the best way to use big data. There’s more promise in offering virtual punch cards and automated loyalty discounts than there is in guessing at branding through the anonymous masses. Customers are also less likely to feel violated if you’re using data collection to provide them with a tangible benefit. Cost savings? No more receipts? Greeting me by name as I walk through the door? Heck, there are plenty of apps I’d delete to free up space on my phone if my favorite stores promised that kind of service.
Early adopters will have to walk a fine line here. When Shazam announced that it will roll out beacon-enabled services, there was a lot of confusion. Nobody’s quite sure what beacon technologies entail, so a clear and limited use of them is your best bet. Still, it doesn’t take much imagination to envision strolling through a beacon-enabled mall, hearing a song drift from a store you thought you’d never visit, and taking out your mobile device to learn more. The Shazam app knows what song is playing in every store—suddenly, subtly, you’ve established an emotional connection with a brand you thought didn’t apply to you. The power of sound is palpable, and the potential for new partnerships is virtually endless.
Walk down an airplane aisle and you’ll see almost every passenger is on a smartphone or tablet, reading, working, or idly playing Candy Crush Saga. Many passengers already use these devices for virtual boarding passes, and some airlines offer streaming content directly to devices via onboard Wi-Fi. In the not-so-distant future, you could check in for a flight without even setting down your bags or fumbling with a phone or tablet to open an airline’s app.
Smartwatches are a sector to be reckoned with, and experiences including hands-free airline check-ins, subtle greetings, and built-in timers for restaurant waiting lists may be all imminent. Similarly, Wi-Fi and brand-partnership trends will reach new heights, a la the nationwide relationship between Starbucks and Google. Coffee shops that already offer Internet access and a specific lifestyle experience can partner with newspapers, music apps, and more to create curated café experiences for all devices.
We often walk into stores without a specific purchase in mind. Great shopping experiences are filled with whimsy and a sense of serendipity, even if store designers spent a staggering amount of time creating that feeling. Similarly, smart-device integration must preserve the sense of discovery that only comes from visiting retail locations. Browsing experiences should not change based on devices, which means that mobile design will be an exploding sector in coming years. As devices get smarter, designers will have to follow suit to provide seamless interactivity across a broader range of possibilities. Someday smartwatches will seem blasé, which should be exciting for brands planning interactive experiences and new application designs.
Beacon technologies should make you feel excited, nervous, and a little overwhelmed—after all, there’s so much potential for connectivity, both literal and metaphorical, and customer trust is as fickle as ever. The amount of data brands will have is staggering, but as is the case any time someone is granted this much power, there is a lot of responsibility to use it well. For me, the idea of never again having to share the embarrassing email address I created in fifth grade is reason enough to be on board with beacon technology. Just beam me the receipt and the newsletter, please.
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