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Sports and entertainment venues flock to beacons for commerce opportunities

February 6, 2014

Mobile gets hyperlocal

As beacon technology picks up speed for marketers, outdoor venues such as sports stadiums and theme parks are among the first to deploy the Bluetooth technology to deliver geolocated, personalized deals and messaging.

While retailers are still figuring out exactly how to use beacons, outdoor venues have already discovered what problems they can solve. Beacons allow outdoor venues to interact with visitors, fans and attendees with whom they previously had no way to communicate.

“I think it’s primarily because it’s a very inexpensive way to begin interacting in a more material way with fans and attendees,” said Tobias Dengel, CEO of WillowTree, Charlottesville, VA.

“Historically, you knew who purchased the ticket, but you wouldn’t know who was attending the event,” he said. “It was really hard for the arenas and stadiums to have a direct relationship with the end attendee.

“By leveraging beacons, the idea is that they can finally establish a direct relationship with all their fans at the venue.”

A new connection
As long as visitors opt-in to receive messaging from beacons, outdoor venues can deliver relevant content based on where visitors are located.

For instance, when a fan enters a stadium, they could receive a message that welcomes them to the game and notifies them of kick-off time. They could also receive a message with special offers at concession stands to drive sales.

For sports stadiums in particular, they are already doling out localized deals such as announcing that all fans in a particular section can get free pizza. Beacons make it easier for this localized deal to take place by notifying fans and then pinging the concession stand when they approach.

Another use case for beacon technology in stadiums is notifying a fan that there is a shorter line at a nearby concession stand. The technology would notice that a fan was waiting in a long line and suggest a shorter line nearby.

The NFL recently leveraged beacons at MetLife Stadium and Times Square for the Super Bowl. The NFL placed Qualcomm’s Gimbal product to deliver hyper-personalized messaging and advertising via the NFL Mobile app.

Beyond sports stadiums, other outdoor venues are also quick to deploy beacons.

For instance, Dutch theme park Fluwel’s Tulpenland is leveraging iBeacons to help guide visitors through the park with relevant messaging. The park will guide visitors through the park with quizzes and rewards that are geolocated (see story).

Another example is how Sonic Notify turned concert-goers phones into a synchronized light show on Swedish House Mafia’s national tour.

“The use cases for proximity awareness in large venues are many and compelling for both the end users as well as for the venue/franchise/talent/team directly,” said Aaron Mittman, CEO of Sonic Notify, New York. “Just as second screen content for broadcast creates an incredibly engaging and rich experience for the user, using proximity awareness at outdoor and also covered venues has the opportunity to provide a similar companion experience for live events.

“The surface has barely been scratched.”

Sonic Notify’s beacon

Beacon vs. Wi-Fi
According to Mr. Dengel, beacons are an extremely inexpensive alternative to Wi-Fi, and at the same time they have the ability to set a geofence of up to 50 meters or as small as a foot.

While some of the larger stadiums already have Wi-Fi, a lot of smaller ones, especially on the college level, do not have a Wi-Fi system set up that can support geolocated messaging and deals. They can therefore save a lot of money by placing some beacons throughout the stadium.

“Wi-Fi is about giving connectivity to the user, and the beacons are primarily about giving content to the users based on their very specific location within a broader arena or triggering payments,” Mr. Dengel said.

Another difference between beacons and Wi-Fi is that consumers often have to take a more active role with Wi-Fi whereas with beacons, they will automatically receive a notification.

“One of the values of beacons is to be able to use passive engagement,” said Kevin Hunter, senior director of product management for Qualcomm Retail Solutions, San Diego. “I’m notified when I walk into a microlocation fence. With Wi-Fi it’s more user driven. This is more passive.

“I think what we’re seeing right now is that the market has transitioned to the beacon component because its relatively easy to install, lower installation cost, lower maintenance cost, and then overall positioning for the experience,” he said. “I get flexibility to have the right customer engagement.”

According to Greg Sokolowski, vice president at Boston Retail Partners, Boston, beacons also use less battery because of the low-level Bluetooth signals they work on.

Retailer lag
As outdoor venues rush to deploy beacons, retailers have been a little more hesitant to experiment with the new technology.

Retailers such as Macy’s and Apple have had success with beacons, but they are still of the minority.

Macy’s in the bluetooth-powered Shopkick app

“I think the opportunity is there, but the conversion rates are going to be much higher in the outdoor venues areas,” said Patrick Denney, chief mobile architect of Headspring Mobile, Austin, TX.

“If you go to a Six Flags or Disney park, how many people do you think have that app open on their phone? I would estimate at least 40 percent,” he said.

“I can’t remember the last time I walked into Macy’s and had the Macy’s app active on my phone. You would have to do a significant amount more marketing around that feature for retailers to get customers to use it.”

Outdoor venues seem to have a more immediate, obvious use case for beacon technology, so it makes sense that they are the first to deploy.

“I think it makes a ton of sense for outdoor venues because it solves the problem of how do we know who’s coming here and give them more of what they want,” WillowTree’s Mr. Dengel said. “I think in the long term it’s going to be just as valuable or more valuable for retail than it is for venues.

“I think the reason the venues are jumping on this so quickly is because the problem is so big and something they’ve been wrestling with for years,” he said. “In retail, there’s going to be more experimentation around what the best uses are.

“I think retailers have a long way to go in terms of figuring out how they’re going to use these powerful devices in consumers’ pockets.”

Final Take
Rebecca Borison is editorial assistant on Mobile Commerce Daily, New York

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Rebecca Borison is editorial assistant on Mobile Commerce Daily and Mobile Marketer. Reach her at

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