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iBeacons and Liferay for Audience Engagement: Part 1

General Blogs June 24, 2014 By James Falkner

This blog is part of a series of entries documenting how we are using iBeacons and Liferay to better engage our audiences at events throughout the year. [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3]

Update: Check out my new eBook! Finding Your Way Around iBeacons for Event Marketing.

Download the eBook

Earlier this year my colleague Ruud Kluivers introduced me to a new technology called iBeacons - it has gained a lot of traction since Apple introduced it last year, and more and more devices get support for it each day. We thought it would be interesting to apply it to our ongoing audience engagement efforts at Liferay, so the past several months I've been integrating it into our hybrid mobile app for Liferay Events. We've used it at two events so far (the Benelux Solutions Forum in May and France Symposium earlier this month), and have learned quite a bit about what worked well and what didn't work so well.

During development I found a lot of technical resources for iBeacons, but little or no research on how to apply it in engagement applications. What kinds of triggers are useful for different audiences? How often should my phone buzz in my pocket? How to avoid annoying people and having them uninstall your app and complain on Twitter? What about privacy?

This series of blog posts will attempt to document what we've done and what we've learned about getting over the hype of the new technology and really thinking about how it can deliver on its promises, without being annoying or just "fluff".

What is an iBeacon?

An iBeacon is a small Bluetooth LE transmitter that continuously sends out a unique code up to about 50m. When sprinkled throughout a space, these beacons can be "seen" by devices capable of receiving the transmissions and can trigger location-aware events like notifications, automatic app navigation, and other kinds of events. As each iBeacon transmits a different code, the app can respond differently based on the user’s location, providing location awareness and contextual engagement possibilities.

You may have heard of them already - several companies are using them in retail stores and other public places, including Apple, Macy's, Fluwel's Tulpenland, Major League Baseball, and more. These companies provide engaging content depending on where their audience is at the moment, making the experience more enjoyable while at the same time developing a closer relationship to customers. It's effective outdoors and indoors where there is often no way to receive GPS signals from satellites. It's cool, but can be creepy, so keep reading...

You got iBeacons to work - congratulations! Now what?

Making iBeacons work at it's lowest level is pretty straightforward - there are some really good blogs and even ready-made libraries (like this one we developed for Titanium) for various mobile and desktop operating systems and the APIs for talking to iBeacons are pretty straightforward (you turn it on with one API call, then it calls your callbacks when various beacons are detected or un-detected). But true benefit comes not just from the technology, but also in understanding human behavior and and applying it to your specific situation.

For our use case, we wanted to provide additional value for attendees, sponsors, and event staff, as well as show off Liferay (of course!). To that end, our goals specifically were:

  • To showcase Liferay’s flexibility and power to integrate with bleeding-edge technology and show how it can be used to more fully engage Liferay users through a combination of mobile and desktop features.
  • To provide great value to attendees by giving them location-aware contextual information and interactive features to help them get the most out of their investment in attending, without being annoying.
  • To provide great value to potential event sponsors to help them drive booth traffic, and be able to interactively engage with attendees for awareness, metrics, and lead generation.
  • To provide great value to Liferay event staff for pre-planning, realtime, and post-event metrics to measure effectiveness of the agenda, venue layout, special events, and other items associated with the event.

Knowing Your Audience

This is the most critical part of any effort to engage an audience - you have to know your audience. In this case, Liferay has held different kinds of events with different kinds of audiences over the years, and we're constantly learning new things about what drives people to attend and what they're looking for. Why do people attend?

  • To learn more about past, present, and future Liferay technology and overcome business and technical challenges
  • To network with other companies and people with the same real world problems
  • To meet our community of experts (employees, partners, sponsors, ISVs, developers, etc)

Attendees come from a broad spectrum of business and technical knowledge, vertical industries, and professional roles, so it's important to understand exactly the kinds of people you expect to engage before doing so. For example, a more business-oriented professional will seek information on ROI, ability for Liferay and its community to support a specific business need, and contacts from similar professionals with the same role (e.g. CTO-to-CTO encounters). A more technical-oriented attendee wants to know specifications, architectural best practices, upcoming features, wants to attend workshops, and wants to understand how Liferay and related software will work in their technical environments.

So how does this knowledge translate into iBeacons? Well, for starters, understand this: attendees aren't there to play with your app! They can do that at home. They are physically there (and spent money to be there) because of the above reasons, which involves person-to-person exchanges. No amount of clever smartphone notifications can replace intimate contact with experts or tell them why their Liferay deployment is slow. However, mobile apps and iBeacons can be an effective tool to help them get the most from their investment in your technology and your event, giving supporting information about the venue and sessions, or suggesting which sessions to attend, or encouraging them to visit sponsor booths using gamification. And to be honest, there is still a certain "coolness"/newness factor that exists with iBeacons which will wear off eventually. But in summary, there are many ways to engage, so you need to know your audience and decide what you think they will want.

One other thing to consider: iBeacons are relatively new, and not every device supports them, so don't assume all of your audience will be able to use them. In particular, it requires Bluetooth 4.0, found only on newer iOS and Android devices. So, for example, we can't (yet) replace the paper surveys and "railpass" games that we typically have at events with iBeacons, as not everyone would be able to participate.

Knowing the Physical Space

Before deciding exactly what you want your app to do, consider the typical space in which they (and your beacons) will be. For our purposes, the main consideration is the overall size of the venue and number of rooms. At it's lowest level, iBeacons transmit an EM signal at a frequency of about 2.4GHz. These signals can be attenuated or blocked entirely by metal and concrete, other 2.4GHz signals (think microwaves and cordless phones), and water. And ideally your space will be filled by lots of moving buckets of water (a.k.a. attendees), so that can present challenges.

In the ideal case, you can place iBeacons in each of your discrete areas (breakout rooms, main hall, entrance, cafe, etc) with no signal overlap. This provides the most possibilities with location awareness, because you'll be able to accurately detect and respond to movement (or lack thereof) into, within, and out of those areas. Of course, this never works in practice, because most buildings and rooms are square, whereas the Bluetooth signal emanating from each beacon is spherical. Round peg into a square hole, that sort of thing. But you can get close by placing beacons in strategic spots, using walls and other blockers to try to contain the signal to the areas in which you want them, and adjusting the signal strength. Walk around the venue beforehand, and see what you've got to work with. For example, here's the quick & dirty diagram from the Benelux Symposium:

We ended up using two beacons turned "all the way up to 11" to cover the Grote Zaal space, and placed them in the rafters. The rest of the areas were served by a single beacon each, and then we had individual beacons for each sponsor booth as well. We had plenty of "overlap" and the potential for attendees to get flooded with notifications, so there is a lot of code to deal with that. We also wanted to re-use it for different events and audience types, so there are lots of configuration options for the app. More on the technical side of things in a future post!

After you place your beacons, walk around with any 3rd-party iBeacon detector app and see what it sees. Also, code in a "debug" easter egg into your app, to make your app report what it "sees". There is one in the Liferay Events app (press and hold your finger on the Gallery title bar, then return to the main screen, and you'll see it!) 

What we learned is that even though the Benelux space was more compact than I'd envisioned, it was still possible to map out discrete locations and serve them with iBeacons by placing the beacons in strategic (and hidden) spots and tuning and broadcast power to suit the space. Assume you will have overlap, and that people will do unexpected things such as walking into and out of a space quickly, detecting beacons through what you consider impermeable walls, or lingering in a "Lagrange Point" between two overlapping beacons :) If your app is to be effective, you must consider these kinds of behaviors.

In the next few posts we'll get into more technical detail, including:

  • True engagement - not just popups
  • Understanding and programming beacon regions and proximities
  • What kinds of beacon actions are good for different audience types, and how to not annoy people
  • Gamification possibilities and what we learned
  • Dealing with unintended audience behavior - using a Death Row analogy
  • Android vs. iOS considerations
  • How the Liferay Events app integrates with Liferay Portal
  • Data collection, analytics and Privacy
  • Future Enhancements

Hopefully this intro whets your appetite for future posts. See you next time!

iBeacons: The Next Liferay Chapter

If you'd like to know more about using iBeacons for engaging audiences and event marketing, check out my new eBook Finding Your Way Around iBeacons for Event Marketing.

Download the eBook

Threaded Replies Author Date
Awesome.. I've worked with iBeacon technology... Diego Santiviago June 24, 2014 7:50 PM
I also use Estimote beacons - and haven't had... James Falkner June 25, 2014 3:52 AM
Exactly.. Sometimes the distance varied between... Diego Santiviago June 25, 2014 5:46 AM

Awesome.. I've worked with iBeacon technology using Estimote Beacons. It's interesting, but not too reliable.
Posted on 6/24/14 7:50 PM.
I also use Estimote beacons - and haven't had any issues with reliability of the beacons themselves, but detection performance varies greatly between different devices and operating systems!
Posted on 6/25/14 3:52 AM in reply to Diego Santiviago.
Exactly.. Sometimes the distance varied between 1m and 3m without changing the phone position. I changed the 'signal strength' using the Estimote App and became better.
Posted on 6/25/14 5:46 AM in reply to James Falkner.