Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Bluetooth beacons and the (potential) creep factor

GimbalS10 large

I’ve started fooling around with Bluetooth beacons recently. Here’s a story about how Target is planning to pilot beacons in a retail setting (which is one of the most common use cases:

 During Target’s testing period, capabilities are limited to surfacing deals and recommendations based on what section of the store a customer is in: A two-for-one deal on Tylenol pops up when a shopper hits the pharmacy, or a recipe for banana bread appears while walking through the fresh fruit section. Target has plans to add features like reorganizing a shopping list based on the most efficient route through the store, and pushing a reminder if you forgot anything on that list once you hit the checkout line, but these will not be available at launch.

Such applications seem potentially useful: coupons/specials based on the department, "I need some help now," etc. They can also start to inch over the line of creep even if, as is commonly the case as it is here, the consumer needs to install and enable a smartphone app to use the beacon services (and be tracked in the store). Imagine having your path through the store loaded into a database, correlated with purchases, your demographic information, and other information from third-party databases to deliver a "personalized experience.”

At one level I don’t worry too much and even vaguely regret that we’re generally pretty bad at targeting advertising anyway. From the comments of this Technology Review article on Facebook a few years back:

A well-known dirty little secret in the advertising world is that, even after millennia of advertising efforts, not a single copywriter can tell you with any confidence beyond a coin flip whether any given advertisement is going to succeed.  The entire "industry" is based on wild-assed guesses and the media equivalent of tossing noodles against the kitchen wall to see what might stick, if anything.  It doesn't matter whether it's print, TV, or on-line media, no one can predict what will actually work.  FB engineers are probably even less well-equipped intellectually than the average ad hack in being able to come up with a better mousetrap to get people to buy what sellers want to hawk.

That said, companies are often somewhere between mildly and completely oblivious about how consumers perceive targeted advertising and other forms of personalization. As Lisa Barnard of Ithaca College noted in a recent study

Previously, targeted ads were based on larger demographic descriptions, such as age or hobbies. But now, with personal information scattered across databases, marketers are able to create more specific consumer profiles. That's what consumers find creepy and what marketers are failing to consider, Barnard said. Even millennials, most of whom are digital natives, are bothered by this extreme customization, she added.

And take a gander at this clip from Minority Report. It may approach satire but I’ve seen perfectly serious “thought leadership” videos from tech companies that weren’t much different.

(For a different and wholly non-creepy example of Bluetooth Beacon technology that uses beacons as the mobile element of an application—they’re more typically used as stationary devices tied to a particular location--take a look at this writeup of a demo Burr Sutter put together for Red Hat Summit.) 

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