Will beaconing go the way of QR codes?


Remember QR codes? Way back three years ago, they were the hot setup in marketing. Today, you don’t see them around so much, and few, if any, consumers still use them. According to a November 13 Advertising Age report, the same’s about to happen to beaconing – this year’s bright, shiny new object – and for many of the same reasons.

“I predict that three out of every four beacon programs will fail in 2015,” writes Puneet Mehta. And while he offers no quantitative basis for this prediction, he nails the reasons why it will qualitatively come true. Those all spring from the same thing that killed QR codes, namely, advertisers misusing them.

Beacons transmit short-range messages to the mobile devices of consumers standing in or near a store. “The devices,” Mehta writes, “offer a way to connect with consumers unlike ever before in-store, when it’s relevant to their immediate location. To personally welcome individuals as they arrive. To disseminate important or motivating content. To gather unique insights into on-premise customer behavior.” But all that connecting and welcoming and motivating and insight-gathering will end up as largely wasted effort, thanks to the ways marketers will misuse the medium – just as they did with QR codes.

  • Overuse – Because “the beacons themselves are available at such a low cost” (though nowhere near as low as QR codes) “…adding multiple devices to hundreds of stores is not out of the question.” But, like QR codes, because retailers can plaster them everywhere, they will – even when and where it’s not only senseless but physically impossible for consumers to use them. Advertisers stuck QR codes on locations that were next to impossible to scan – not only on ads and direct mail pieces, but on bumper stickers and the backs of moving buses, outdoor boards along the Interstates, on airborne banners – even on website pages,where they just took you back to…the website you were already on. The sheer ubiquity made them all become part of the background, and 95 percent of consumers ended up shunning them.
  • Undertargeting – By talking to everybody (or trying to), you end up talking to nobody. Like QR codes, beacons select only by location. A message beamed to a man passing by a perfume store or department is wasted, unless he happens to be in the market for a gift for his wife or girlfriend.
  • Overtargeting – Dozens of beacons pinging passers-by in retail areas every five steps is a good way to get them to turn off their Bluetooth and block all those unwanted messages – just as consumers exposed to QR codes everywhere mentally turned them off. It’s possible to target consumers who’ve been standing in the location for a few minutes, or whose data shows they’re interested in the product category or high spenders – but will retailers take the trouble to?
  • Making them physically inaccessible – As noted above, marketers put QR codes in places that no one could possibly scan them from. Beacons have a similar problem; they interact with smartphones via Bluetooth, and the iPhone 6 and 6 plus are the only smartphones that turn on Bluetooth automatically. For everyone else, it’s manual, and consumers aren’t going to turn it on for push alerts, mindless messages, piddling offers and other things that have nothing of value to offer.
  • No consumer benefit – Back in the Good Old Days (i.e., 2011-12) some marketers used their QR codes to offer consumers something worthwhile for scanning them. QR codes on Croatian postage stamps, for example, let mailers track the progress of their letters and packages. QR codes on Radisson Edwardian hotel restaurant menus let diners see what the dishes they were considering look like and read how they’re made. QR codes that FirstBank, in Denver, put on airport posters let travelers with smartphones download puzzles and public-domain books to while away the time between planes. But most QR codes had little, if any, benefit for consumers who scanned them, and ended up being largely ignored because of it. The same holds true for beacon pings. An endless barrage of 5-percent-off deals doesn’t motivate consumers to do anything except opt out. But “[d]epending on the nature of the product and the customer herself,” says Mehta, “she might be motivated by the following: a celebrity endorsement, a scientific study, a most popular or trending status, an “as seen on TV” offer, peer reviews and rankings, media articles, etc.”

“Beacons will be treated as a hammer looking for a nail,” Mehta warns. So before you pull back and let swing with that beacon program, take good aim to make sure you don’t end up mashing your thumb.


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