Beacons contribute to billions of dollars in retail sales each year, but most use cases for beacons require users to download an app. How can this hurdle be overcome? We’ve actively been exploring other ways companies can use beacons to interact with consumers.
Beacons are low-cost, small hardware devices that use ‘Bluetooth low energy’ technology to emit a signal that can be picked up by nearby devices. They can be used for greater accuracy in location-based applications, allowing companies to track user trends and provide a more personalized customer experience. We’ve experimented with different use cases for beacons and how they can be used most effectively to reach target audiences.
For example, it is viable to create Apple Wallet passes that react to beacons based on beacon id numbers. iPhones can download passes via email, link, or QR code instantly. Once the pass is on the phone, it can interact with nearby beacons to let users know a store is nearby, and companies can send custom notifications to users by updating the pass.
This technology can improve the customer experience and help companies develop a direct-to-customer relationship. Apple passes are easy to download, and just as easy to use. They provide convenience for customers — no more printing out tickets or forgetting about coupons — and passes can be easily updated with new information, such as new in-store sales or upgraded airline seats. When a pass approaches a corresponding beacon, a notification appears on the locked screen that will open the pass when swiped. This method allows businesses to customize how they engage with consumers digitally based on where the consumer is physically.
Retailers can use both passes and beacons to create a better customer experience and increase in-store sales. Stores have already demonstrated that beacons can be used to better personalize mobile apps and discover data patterns about consumer trends. 400 million beacons are expected to be deployed by 2020. Large retailers, such as Target and Macy’s, have rolled out beacons to their locations and incorporated them into their apps. Retailers can use the existing beacon hardware when designing passes to further improve the customer experience. Here are some other large retailers we believe should enter the beacon game immediately:
Mobile coupons are already gaining significant traction, with over 100 million estimated users in 2016. The mobile couponing app company RetailMeNot claims their company alone influenced $3.5 billion in retail sales in 2013, and marketing emails with mobile coupons attached increased revenue by 48% when compared to other types of marketing emails. Passes can act as a gateway to downloading a retailer’s official app. Retailers can create a relationship with the customer by sending personalized notifications about new sales and deals to the user’s phone.
Deploying beacons near checkout counters will make it easier for customers to redeem offers and coupons. Passes can remind consumers about deals and upcoming sales and entice users to enter a store.
Passes can also represent reward programs or tickets for events, train rides, or flights, improving the customer experience. According to analysts at Juniper Research, over 1.5 billion boarding passes will be issued on mobile devices by 2019. Airlines can install beacons near their gates so passengers can easily access their mobile boarding passes.
During this project, we designed several Apple Passes that demonstrated the benefits of working with passes. To create a pass, we needed to first get the correct ids and certificates from the Apple Developers portal. Pass creation then begins with a folder, where developers should store a JSON file containing the pass data and formatted images. Once you have the ids and certificates, you can run the pass folder through Apple’s signpass program, available here, in order to create a Pkpass file. This file is what is stored on the phone. For additional information, you can check out Apple’s guide to developing your first pass.
In order to update passes, we set up a server to keep track of mobile devices and push out updated passes. We developed endpoints to register a mobile device when a pass was downloaded, unregister that device when the pass was deleted, and log debug information from the pass. Updating passes required an additional endpoint, and relied on Apple’s Push Notifications service to increase security to protect information on the pass. The final step was setting up a webpage where users could download passes and we could update passes manually.
By the end of the project, we had developed several different passes for demonstration purposes. We made coupons, boarding passes tickets, and even a reservation pass for a VR headset. Using a link on our webpage, we can update the reservation pass to let the user know their VR headset arrived. All the passes are connected to beacons, and a notification will pop up on your phone if you’re in range of a beacon connected to the pass.
Apple provides five design templates for passes, so designers are forced to work within those constraints. There is a fair amount of room for customization though. The design of the pass is determined by the JSON file and parsed by the signpass program. In order for signpass to work, we had to follow the JSON format determined by Apple and include properly sized images. We also needed to include a valid web service url in the JSON to download the pass to our phones. The documentation for creating passes isn’t great, so initially it can be challenging to determine which fields are required. Contact us if you want help! We did a lot of testing and ended up documenting any issues we discovered. By keeping track of what broke, we were eventually able to find & implement an efficient system for creating new passes.
Additionally, we had to worry about creating secure endpoints. The pass can be connected to financial data, so it needs to reflect correct information. Mobile gift cards need to accurately and securely represent the money stored on the card, and should be updated immediately after a purchase. A mobile boarding pass needs to reflect flight delays or gate changes. Inaccurate information risks upsetting customers. Users can also choose to turn off automatic updates, which could lead to confusion. To mitigate this, we had to work with Apple’s Push Notifications service.
Airline companies such as Hawaiian Airlines can use boarding passes to improve the boarding process for passengers. While traveling can be a hassle, mobile boarding passes can make the experience much easier. Currently, over 745 million boarding passes are issued on mobile a year, mainly by frequent flyers.
CVS offers customers coupons as part of their ExtraCare rewards program. Rather than scanning a barcode and receiving a receipt listing all their new deals, customers could scan their Apple Pass and store their coupons digitally.
Restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory could use passes as buzzers. If there’s a waitlist to be seated, they could issue a pass to patrons and update the pass when a table is available.
Over the course of this project, we discovered both the advantages and limitations of using passes & beacons. In retrospect, our initial optimism was slightly tempered as we discovered the design constraints for passes — but after thorough exploration & experimentation, we ended up feeling even more optimistic as we discovered that passes have several unexpected features that we leveraged to achieve our goals. The key to working with passes & beacons is to understand the limitations you need to work within, and then explore and experiment ambitiously within those parameters.
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