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In an action which is indicative of both the future of social media and e-commerce, Facebook has recently begun a rollout of beacons to supports its Place Tips software. This system will not be particularly well known at present, but it will enable businesses to send updates to a person's smartphone when they are in vicinity of a particular business.

Facebook Distributes Beacons

As the social media site attempts to ensure that retailers are keen on this technology, Facebook has chosen to send out free Bluetooth beacon devices to any company which requests them. Previous Digital Tourism Think Tank articles have addressed beacon technology, particularly with regard to the Apple iBeacon system, and this latest move by Facebook unquestionably underlines the potential and future importance of this disruptive technology.

Indeed, the Place Tips system only works with Apple devices currently, but a system which will be compatible with Google's Android is currently under development. Facebook has been trialling the technology in New York City since the beginning of the year, and it has since signalled its intention to release the technologies throughout the United States. This would seem to be a tentative launch of the Place Tips system, as Facebook hitherto refused to indicate when will be launched outside of North America.

However, marketers should note that this is basically an inevitability. Although beacon technology still has to answer some questions about privacy and intrusiveness, the usefulness of the technology to companies, marketers, and potentially consumers, cannot be overstated.

For those who are uninitiated with beacons, once the technology has been installed at outlets such as coffee shops and restaurant, it can detect when users of Facebook are within a set distance. It isn then possible for the beacon in question to send what the social media site describes as "fun, useful and relevant" information into the user's News Feed.

It is suggested by Facebook that this information could include content posted by friends residing in the same place, as well as popular menu items and upcoming events. As the beacon technology develops, it is also expected to be expanded to a wide variety of retailers and businesses. Facebook has stated that companies will not currently be able to use the service to advertise, but that this position will probably change in the foreseeable future.

Beacons Achieve Early Results

Although it is extremely early in the lifecycle of this technology, Facebook claims that Place Tips has already caused a steady increase in traffic from inter-store visitors among the local businesses that have utilised them. Although this is an encouraging sign for the technology, it should also be noted in mitigation that Facebook is obviously promoting beacon, and this their proclamation that it has been a success should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Nonetheless, as Facebook continues to expand this aspect of this operation, Apple is also currently testing its iBeacon system in a range of businesses around the world. These include a selection of McDonald's restaurants, and a handful of shops on London's iconic Regent Street. Apple passed a special deal for chicken nuggets to iPhones, and this resulted in a reported 7.5 percent increase in the sales of nuggets at the 26 McDonald’s locations involved.

Despite the potential of this particular technology, it is important for digital marketers to understand that some of the more negative issues associated with it. One marketing expert that spoke to the BBC about the Facebook plan stated that it is particularly important that beacon-based systems do not become excessively intrusive.

Spam, Privacy and Intrusiveness

Thus, once Facebook puts its beacon and Place Tips system into operation, the company will need to be particularly careful with how information is distributed to users. Aaron Wachsstock, a digital content strategist at the Virginia-based Borenstein Group, pointed out that information sent via beacon technology has the potential to be intrusive, and that when people receive a raft of messages this could easily be viewed as worthless spam.

Clearly the context of when and how beacons are used is critically important, and it is also essential for companies to ensure users of the service that they are not going to be bombarded with worthless information.

Additionally, in an era in which petty concerns are particularly sensitive, Facebook has gone to great lengths to stress that information sharing with the Beacon technology is one-way only. Facebook states that Place Tips does not collect any information from users of mobile devices, nor change the sort of location information that Facebook already receives.

It is also important to emphasise that that the Place Tips service can be turned off at any time. This is not something that is compulsory and obligatory, it is rather an optional system that can be disabled easily and completely. Nonetheless, observers of the Facebook promotion still believe that there could be a general sense of paranoia among Facebook users regarding who is watching them.

And these fears are quite legitimate. The Register published a critical article on the concept of Place Tips, which was slightly alarmist in tone, but nonetheless underlines that this service needs to be marketed and delivered to people in an appropriate fashion. Beacons can be part of a marketing strategy for the travel industry, but the implementation of the technology will be critical importance in its success.

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