Google Beacons & Proximity Marketing – How it Works

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UPDATE: The Google beacon platform was shut down on April 1, 2021.

In the marketing industry, it’s not uncommon for new technologies to emerge and then quietly disappear for a few years. Beacons are one such technology that’s had to take some time away from the limelight in recent years. These weren’t only supposed to transform the nature of location-based marketing but also give birth to a new wave of smart cities around the world – something we’re still waiting to see, five years later.

The fact is, beacon technology needed time to mature and there were a number of integration issues that had to be addressed before it could be widely adopted. Google decided to take the initiative in 2015 with its own development platform aimed at solving these problems, and a lot of progress has been made over the past few years.

Now, beacons look like they’re ready to start living up to some of the hype. This means proximity marketing will be a priority for a lot of brands in 2020.

What are beacons and why should marketers care?

Beacons are small devices that send out signals over a short distance, generally a few metres in diameter. Devices within this range are able to pick up the signal transmitted by the beacon and this allows you to target users at close proximity with specific messages or actions.

The thing is, you’re not only limited to a single beacon. With a network of beacons set up within a single city, metro system, shopping centre or a single store, it’s possible to send highly targeted messages to every person in the area as they move from one location to another.

Imagine tourists receiving notifications about the nearest landmarks as they travel around London or shoppers seeing a list of a shop’s best offers as they walk past the store. These are the kind of opportunities beacons make possible and there’s a lot of reason to be excited about this technology.

Here’s a look at some of the key benefits/opportunities beacons have to offer:

  • Location targeting: Beacons let you target users with messages based on their specific location.
  • Mapping: The ability to “see” where consumers go in-store and attribute actions to these journeys – e.g. gauge how many buy a product after seeing promotional signs.
  • Frequency: Measure how often people visit the same locations, how long they spend there and how these relate to sales.
  • In-store messaging: Send promotional offers to people as they look through your store or business location.
  • Guide users: With full beacon systems, you can guide people through entire shopping centres, stadiums, airports and entire cities.
  • Gamification: Brands are using beacons to create treasure hunts and gamify the consumer process.
  • Cross-selling: Target shoppers with related products, special offers and other purchases as they queue up to pay.
  • Loyalty: Send loyalty rewards to people as they complete purchases.
  • Customer recalls: Send promotions and other messages to people who leave without buying anything to entice them back into the store.

Beacons aren’t limited to retail brands but these are the most common use cases so far – and probably the easiest to imagine. Martini has used beacon technology to notify bartenders when customers need a refill, transport networks are using it to guide passengers through their journeys and Singapore’s award-winning Changi Airport uses it to automate immigration checks.

Haven’t beacons been around for a while already?

Yes, beacons have been around since Apple introduced iBeacons in 2013 and there was a lot of buzz at the time about the technology being used to build smart cities around the world. However, like many tech innovations, beacons didn’t make the instant impact many predicted and things have been pretty quiet for the past five years.

Unfortunately, the first generation of beacons had a number of practical integration problems.

Brooklyn Museum wrote an interesting piece in 2015 explaining the issues it had with iBeacons, ranging from a lack of serial numbers on the devices, tracking problems between multiple devices and various other integration challenges.

“We are still happy we went this route, but the practicalities have been difficult. I have to tell you we’ll likely switch to Apple’s Indoor Positioning as fast as we can possibly do it; at least, I hope, before batteries in these beacons run out.” – Shelly Bernstein, Brooklyn Museum

Clearly, the technology had a lot of potential but it still had some growing up to do before it could be a practical option for marketers and retailers on a mass scale.

Which brands used beacons effectively in 2019?

Beacon technology took a giant leap forward in 2015 (which we’ll take a look at in the next section) and has continued to evolve since then. In 2019, some of the world’s biggest brands were using the devices to innovate customer experiences and engage audiences at major events.

One of the most ambitious use cases of beacons has got to be Amazon’s cashierless convenience stores, which have opened up across Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Seattle. Amazon Go stores use beacons to remove the queues and checkouts from every day in-store purchases.

That’s not the only way Amazon was using beacons in 2019, either. The eCommerce giant also used the devices to track attendees at its AWS conference in Las Vegas to gain insights into foot traffic throughout the event.

On the other side of the world, at the Nike House of Innovation in Shanghai, the sports brand uses more than 40 beacons across a 41,150 square-feet space in the famous Nanjing East Road shopping district to create a seamless shopping experience. The beacons allow customers to pay for goods using Instant Checkout spaces and collect reserved items from lockers at multiple locations.

Sign of Nike House of Innovation in Shanghai

Meanwhile, one of the oldest and most successful applications of proximity marketing comes from Starbucks, which uses beacons to send offers to customers as they walk into stores. Using the mobile app, users can also place orders and pay for their coffee, ranking up reward points for every sip.

Graph of proximity mobile payment users in the US, by platform, 2019

The campaign has been so successful that, until last year, the Starbuck’s app was the most widely used mobile payment platform in the US and it’s still used far more than the likes of Google Pay and Samsung Pay.

Introducing Google Beacons and Eddystone

In 2015, Google launched the next generation of beacon technology with Google Beacon Platform and the open source Eddystone format. Google Beacon Platform provides developers with all the tools and resources they need to build their own beacon functionality and Eddystone is the beacon technology alternative to iBeacon. Eddystone is similar to iBeacon in almost every way, except for a few crucial differences:

  • Cross-platform: Eddystone is compatible with Android and iOS devices, plus any platform that supports BLE beacons (iBeacon is iOS only).
  • Open source: Eddystone is 100% open-source and published openly on GitHub.
  • Broadcast packets: While iBeacon only transmits one type of signal, Eddystone is capable of sending four different types for a broader range of interactions with users.
  • APIs: Google’s Nearby API and Proximity Beacon API have made beacon devices more accurate and powerful while also making it easier to manage large systems of beacons.
  • Cloud services: With your Google Cloud Platform account you can manage your beacon system, store and send attachments, plus monitor the health of your beacons from a single place.

Google Beacon Platform has enhanced the capabilities of beacon technology immensely and a lot of the major beacon manufacturers are now producing devices that support all of the functions possible with Eddystone. However, the real triumph of the Google Beacon Platform is how it has made development easier on the software side of things and the practical implementation of beacon systems, which the likes of Brooklyn Museum and many retailers have struggled with in the past.

Making beacons more accessible in 2020 and beyond

In the video above, you can see Google’s Peter Lewis talk about a number of ways Google Beacon Platform is solving many of the development and implementation problems the technology has had in the past.

One of the biggest development barriers with the first generation of beacons was that individual beacons could only be implemented for a single action at one location for one application only. In a practical sense, this means developing apps with beacon integration quickly becomes unmanageable and this is one of the most important solutions Google Beacon Platform provides.

Google has stepped away from the single-beacon-for-a-single-use formula to build a system where you can assign multiple actions to a single beacon. So, now you can develop your apps where the key variable is location and you can assign multiple interactions to these locations – a far more streamlined development process.

Beacon description screen on Google Beacon Platform

Better yet, you can do all of this within the Google Beacons dashboard without hard coding your app to detect the frequency of each individual beacon. Instead, you can simply register all of your devices to Google Cloud platform and create them as locations via the Proximity Beacon API or the beacons dashboard.

With your locations set up, you can jump right into the functionality of your app and start assigning actions to each location.

Google Beacon Platform Project Dashboard

Aside from a cleaner development process, this also means you can do more with fewer beacons and the overall size of your device network will be smaller. This, of course, makes the practical implementation of a beacon system less complex, but this isn’t the only post-development issue Google is looking to fix.

Another common problem with beacons has been managing and testing systems after they’ve been implemented – namely to make sure they’re functioning correctly. For example, if you’ve got multiple beacons set up in your business location, you want to know users are connecting with the device closest to them, not one further away.

We mentioned earlier that Eddystone allows you to send different types of data signals from your devices; one of these includes performance data that helps you track the status and functionality of each individual device.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of Google’s cloud-based development infrastructure is that it enables developers to share resources. This means brands can team up to create immersive experiences between applications – for example, a retailer tapping into the beacon system of a shopping centre and integrating functions into their own app.

This can work on a much larger scale too, as we’re seeing with Amsterdam’s open beacon network, which is accessible to developers who think they can tap into the city’s business potential. Now, we’re finally talking about a workable system for the kind of smart cities industry experts were so excited about when Apple first introduced the iBeacon, half a decade ago.

Beacon location map
Amsterdam’s open beacon network

Google isn’t the only company developing beacon technology, but it deserves credit for solving a lot of development and implementation issues.

Now, the tech giant is teaming up with cities around the world to create open beacon systems that are accessible to developers. Brands can use the same open-source technology to build their own systems and kick-start their proximity marketing efforts.

How to set up a proximity marketing system

Buying a collection of beacons is easy but creating a proximity marketing strategy that maximises their potential is something else entirely. The likes of Amazon and Starbucks are using them with great success but a successful strategy needs to solve real consumer problems and close the gap between online and offline consumer experiences.

Here are some resources that will help.

How beacon technology works

This guide from Shopify runs through the key use cases of beacons technology for smaller retailers:

  • Deliver messages to customers as they move through your store
  • Send personalised offers
  • Track in-store customer behaviour
  • Increase mobile app downloads, usage

We’ve also seen how Amazon and Nike use the technology to create a mobile checkout experience – it all comes down to what you want to achieve in-store. Don’t just deliver location-based messages because you can; determine which customer problems/needs you can solve with them first.

As with any kind of marketing strategy, define what your goals are and then determine how you can use the tools at your disposal to achieve them.

If you’re looking for a more comprehensive look at the practical side of running a proximity marketing campaign, this guide from explains the different hardware options available and what they’re capable of. This will give you an idea of what it will take to physically install the system you need.

Finally, on the software side of things, for a more technical look at using Google Proximity Beacons, check out this two-part tutorial from ProTech that explains the setup process and how to solve a number of common problems.

If you can’t find everything you need to know in this article and the resources we’ve linked to, call us on 023 9283 0281 for a more in-depth discussion on how to create a proximity marketing strategy for your business and implement the right hardware/software system.

Ben Jayston profile picture
Ben Jayston

While working as a consultant for the 85 Broads Network in New York City in 2004 (now Ellevate), Ben was asked to ‘look into’ SEO for the company website. Ben then formed his own company, Pebble SEO, to offer SEO and adjunct digital services to the US market, expanding into PPC, design and content writing services. Arriving back in the UK in 2010, Ben joined a small company on the Isle of Wight as a business development manager, getting closer to the web development and design side of things, before partnering with Vectis Holdings as the MD of we3create, a full-service digital agency, serving the Isle of Wight. Later, as the owner of Digital IOW and partner in Isle of Wight SEO, he used a broad range of skills, from web and graphic design to video production, and, of course, SEO. Ben is now Head of SEO for small and medium businesses at Vertical Leap. He enjoys cycling, photography, making sourdough and short films.

More articles by Ben
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