What if you could tap your target customer on the shoulder and hand them the information that would be most helpful when they need it? Beacons offer this virtual promise, interacting with mobile users in geographic locations that can be pinpointed to within inches.

What are beacons?

Beacons, first debuted by Apple in 2013, are also known as “proximity beacons” or “Bluetooth low-energy beacons.” These pocket-sized electronic objects broadcast snippets of information via radio waves to a distance of inches, feet or even dozens of yards.

Beacons regularly send out one-way signals that are “caught” by a nearby mobile device like a smart phone, tablet or wearable. They can also be used to track the length of time a person spends in a particular area, such as a grocery store aisle. Beacons are currently being used in a variety of public spaces — from corporations to airports, museums to department stores, stadiums to grocery aisles.

How could pharma brands employ beacons?

Beacons, interacting with phones or wearables, could have a variety of applications for patients, caregivers and healthcare professionals. Here are a few examples:

For consumers

  • Step-by-step, floor-by-floor navigation to help a user find a specialist’s office or a loved one’s hospital room
  • Reminders to pick up a prescription, or to alert a shopper to a sale on an over-the-counter medication
  • Praise when a health-conscious user visits gyms, parks or other fitness locations, or performs a simple everyday healthy activity like climbing the stairs instead of taking the elevator, or visiting the produce case instead of the dessert station in the cafeteria

For healthcare providers

  • Recognizing a healthcare provider when he or she reaches an exam room or a nurse’s station, and pushing them the most up-to-date information on patients
  • Serving as a guide or a game at a professional conference, providing directions or a scavenger hunt
  • Installing beacons in a practice office, so patients can be prompted to complete paperwork, streamlining the check-in process

What about privacy?

The biggest obstacle may be in getting consumers to download relevant apps and opt in to receive beacon transmissions. Furthermore, in order to receive the information beacons transmit, their mobile device’s location services, Bluetooth options, and push notifications for a particular app must be activated.

Google is attempting to circumvent these obstacles by supporting third-party beacon notifications on Chrome, so that users can opt in to receive push notifications through their browsers instead of other apps. In another example of brand collaboration, the Boston grocery chain Food Lion is teaming up with the music app, Shazam, to provide mobile coupons to in-store shoppers.

In instances where such collaboration isn’t an option, brands must give users a reason to opt in by creating great experiences and providing can’t-miss incentives.

What’s the verdict?

Existing beacon technology is fairly inexpensive and can have powerful benefits when integrated with mobile apps, as we mentioned when we first wrote about beacons in 2014. Uptake hasn’t quite changed the world yet, but even a small percentage of implementation can have a big impact. Last year, Business Insider estimated that beacons would influence $4 billion in sales in the United States alone, with that number jumping to $40 billion this year.

The future of beacons will probably be somewhere in between the extremes and look more like an evolution than any current iteration. Our job as marketers is to strive for customer centricity and satisfaction; beacons may yet prove valuable in this mission.