Beacons 101

Beacons may be the coolest new technology on the block — but there is a right way and a wrong way to use them.

As GPS-based tracking becomes increasingly ubiquitous, planners who embrace location-based technologies such as smart beacons can put them to innovative use, according to Matthew Donegan-Ryan, director of mobile strategy for Cvent. “We’re going to see people use it a lot more,” Donegan-Ryan says in “Beacon Technology,” the latest video for The Intersection, presented by PCMA and PSAV.

A beacon is a Bluetooth device that collects or sends out information within a specific location. At a meeting or trade show, beacons can interact with attendees’ smartphones and other devices, gathering data about arrival, check-in, and sessions they attend — as well as pushing out valuable information. “Location-based services can deliver content or notifications to you based on where you are,” Donegan-Ryan says in the video. Because beacons are small and easy to place on podiums and walls outside session rooms, or in exhibit booths, they can deliver messages such as “Welcome to the hotel” or “Take the elevator to the right.” Beacons also can track session attendance, direct attendees to online polls or speaker evaluations, and send popup notifications from booths.

It sounds like a bounty of easy data — but it’s important to consider the potential drawbacks, said event-technology expert and speaker Corbin Ball, CSP, CMP, DES. “Don’t turn them into spamming devices,” Ball told Convene. “[Beacon technology] has got to be perceived as value to the user.”

Ball also thinks it’s important to let attendees know that they might be tracked during a meeting. “If you’re tracking,” he said, “there’s going to be a need for some disclosure at registration about that.” And while Ball thinks venue-based beacons are still in their infancy — early adopters include the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center and the San Diego Convention Center — he acknowledges that “the analytic information that can be gained on attendee movement is pretty amazing.”

In the video, Donegan-Ryan notes that beacons also can help facilitate the central aim of any meeting: connecting people with other people. “We want to get people to engage with the event more, and engage with other attendees,” Donegan-Ryan says “You can give a different set of information to each attendee based on their preferences.” If all of this sounds expensive, it doesn’t have to be. “The beacons themselves can be as low as $5,” Ball said. “They’re essentially chips with a battery and a Bluetooth signal.” 

Smart Beacons 101

Five takeaways from Matthew Donegan-Ryan:.

1. Beacons can help orient attendees at a meeting.

2. Set up beacons at locations throughout your attendees’ journey.

3. Beacons can send messages, initiate software, or point to an online experience.

4. Beacons can promote exhibit-space attendance by pushing information about giveaways.

5. Beacons will be ever smarter, sending specific content to specific attendees.

Watch this month’s Intersection video:

Corin Hirsch

Corin Hirsch is associate editor of Convene.