Proximity marketing is not, by any means, last year's invention; five years ago, when Red Bull started their first major proximity marketing campaign, the idea had already been floating around for a while, and the breaking news was that it was now being implemented by giants like Red Bull and Coca Cola rather than tech enthusiasts with a side business. Yet somehow, phone-centered proximity marketing remained more an exotic feat of engineering than a viable way of engaging customers.
But last year, Google seems to have taken the defining step of this technology by introducing Nearby Notifications as part of their Physical Web project. Nearby Notifications are exactly what they sound like: they're a way to trigger notifications on a phone when its owner is in the vicinity of a “beacon” – more to the point, when its owner is in a specific area.
Google's major advancement lays in the fact that they replaced the fragmentation in delivery mechanisms, protocols, requirements and so on, with a unified, standard set of technologies. This gives tech companies a predictable base to work on and finally allows them to unleash their creative efforts and focus on the user experience.
The fact that Nearby Notification is seeing use in fields as far removed from the world of tech buzz like tourism, and by companies with a client base as diverse as CVS's is a sign that we're finally past infancy. Now that this fundamental step has been taken, where could we go next?
Nearby Notifications have a rather timid-sounding name that doesn't do this technology much justice. The notifications it can deliver are actually more than just messages – you can use them to drive your own app installs, to open profiles in social apps – in short, you can interface them directly to Android's app intents system.
This means that a location-aware, ad-hoc chat system or forum at a concert venue or CSR conference is just one application away; helping attendees connect by exchanging LinkedIn profiles rather than stacks of business cards is similarly on the horizon.
Why aren't we there yet? Two major pieces of the puzzle are still missing: on the UX side, we're still learning how to properly implement what is no longer a one-device, one-process interaction. Traditional use scenarios were centered around one user interacting with the application on his phone; moving them to several users interacting with their phones and with each other, with interaction spread between the users themselves and each user and their phone, is changing how we think about engineering user experience. On the development side, orchestrating a delivery infrastructure that includes such diverse systems – literally ranging from tiny beacons to servers – is an integration effort on a whole new level.
If you go enough turtles down, Nearby Notifications just provide standard Android links, but they can be integrated with metrics and analytics systems. Not only does this provide for an easy way to analyze how customers use Nearby Notifications, but it also brings an unprecedented level of detail to location-based and location-aware analytics. Aggregating and analyzing a dataset of such resolution is a significant challenge, especially when you think that the best we could aspire to just one year ago was mostly IP-based location, maybe with bonus points given for using data about WiFi networks.
Beyond Location: A Truly Personalized Experience
Perhaps the most fascinating possibility that proximity marketing brings is the opportunity to integrate it with even more tech-dependent, computing-heavy mechanisms like big data analytics. Buzzword-skeptical critics point out that, if they remain entirely generic and untargeted, proximity ads are no different from a really small billboard, except it gets pushed on the phone because everyone's looking into their phones nowadays.
The simplest way to personalization is to simply take advantage of the location context. The small range of the beacons allows them to deliver content specific to locations as small as the winter clothes section of a small outlet. But proper integration with more advanced analysis and tracking mechanisms invite a wide range of possibilities to enable the delivery of even more relevant offers and ads, and to integrate their delivery into processes that have traditionally been mostly orthogonal to customer engagement, such as queue management.
However, this does bring up entirely new ethical and regulatory issues as well. The FTC already has regulations in place (and has even implemented them).
Compliance efforts will mean more than just ticking check boxes. A proper opt-out procedure hidden behind an obnoxious user experience can quickly turn into a disaster, as it imprints an adversarial mindset upon anyone who has to go through it. And, of course, properly engineered content delivery only takes you so far. A personalized ad that is too personal, in too blunt a manner, quickly crosses the border between “engaging” and “creepy”.
Want to learn more about Nearby Notifications and other similar technologies that will become mainstream in the future? Join us in February, at the UX+DEV Summit in South Florida.