Are beacons the most disruptive force in mobile search?

It’s a very interesting time for search marketers. 

Desktop and notebook search trends are settling into a predictable Monday through Friday routines. Tablets are becoming the go-to mobile device for dual screening time in front of the television, which is increasingly streaming on-demand content. Deep links are presenting new opportunities for app search on mobile devices. 

And then there is Apple’s iOS9, not just a disruptive force for paid search marketing, but also mobile search marketing.

To be clear, Apple doesn’t manufacture physical beacon devices. Apple’s iBeacon technology was first made available in its iOS7 release on Sept 18 2013 and was built into an estimated 200m iOS devices that can serve as transmitters and receivers for beacons. 

iBeacon

It is only now that third-party manufacturers are building beacons that can send iBeacon messages to Apple devices, along with beacon management systems that also support Eddystone, an open beacon format from Google. 

The force awakens 

According to Retail Trends for Holiday Shopping, last year mobile accounted for more than half of all holiday shopping traffic, but only 26% of transactions were made on mobile devices. 

From this data, marketers surmise that consumers are using their mobile devices more frequently for research, but the vast majority are still going into their local stores to purchase.

Facebook continues to play with mobile beacons as part of its new Place Tips service. Meanwhile, big brands and individual retailers are using beacon technology to deliver hyper localized search results this holiday sales season. 

Yext, Swirl, and RIO SEO are now part of the mix of beacon management and consulting agencies offering proprietary platforms alongside app integrations from Estimate and GPShopper, among others. 

How big of an impact will hyper-localized geomarketing have on this year’s holiday shopping season? In a word, “huge” according to Jeffrey K. Rohrs, Yext Chief Marketing Officer. 

“Increasingly, mobile customers want relevant, hyper-local information on a moment’s notice” Rohrs said. “Retail trends indicate this holiday season, 84% of consumers want retailers to offer more relevant deals and discounts while 54% want more personalized experiences everywhere they shop.”

Combatting the dark side

There are a few barriers to widespread adoption of beacon technology in that there are several layers of permissions to overcome. First, customers have to turn on Bluetooth, and then accept location services on a related app and finally opt-in to receive in-store or indoor notifications.

macy-s-ibeacons

Will bargain-hunting holiday shoppers embrace layers of permissions to readily adopt beacon technologies and if so, how can big brands and retailers avoid the creepy factors associated with in-store stalker-like notifications? 

Beacon-powered mobile marketers at Swirl, who have backing from Twitter, think otherwise on both counts.  

“On the contrary,” says Rebecca Schuette, Director of Marketing for Swirl Networks, Inc. “Permission layers are actually one of the keys to successful beacon marketing. By asking consumers for permission to use their location, we eliminate the creepy factor associated with tracking a user’s location without their knowledge.”

Schuette added, “with self-selected opt-in audience of consumers, Beacon marketers ensure that that messages are delivered to those that are most receptive to receiving them.”

Of course, the key to long-term success will be creating value for consumers in beacon interactions in the near-term, so that more shoppers will want to opt-in to participate or miss out on a great deal.    

Tyler Ludwig, RIO SEO Director of Product and Strategy, cited a recent Forrester study (behind a paywall) that found 41% of consumers are wary of sharing their location results even for offers and discounts. 

Ludwig contends that retailers and brands should develop a location marketing and mobile purchase strategy focused on contextual customer value delivery, rather than just disrupting the user experience, in order to overcome these objections. 

“Rio SEO brings in data at the user level only around engagement, and how that consumer transfers from online to offline conversions through mobile wallet systems and analytics,” Ludwig said. “We aren’t capturing user information to re-sell ads or become overly involved in a user’s private experience, but simply allowing brands to track their efforts cross-channel within a single dashboard.” 

Disruption in the mobile force

Search marketers in the know contend that iOS9 search signals a dramatic shift in the way brands interact with consumers in the local space. Yext recommends that brands must now have an SEO strategy for their apps that includes location. 

Those brands that embrace beacons early on will benefit in the form of “more brand app downloads (from users exposed to their app via search) and foot traffic to their locations,” Rohrs said. “The smart brands will optimize for these moments that matter for they are what turns proximity into profit.” 

September results are starting to roll in and we are already seeing the impact of iOS9 in mobile search traffic. Just how much of current mobile traffic will shift locally to apps remains to be seen. 

We will determine the winners and losers of early beacon adoption early next year. Until then, beacons will trigger interesting opportunities for brands and retailers to engage consumers with unique content at a very local level yet this year. 

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