We’ve heard quite a lot about iBeacons over the years, but to date they don’t seem to have made much of an impact. We’ve seen adoption from a small number of high-profile brands, such as Condé Nast, DisneyHudson’s Bay Company and SXSW, but it’s rare to see much sign of iBeacon presence even in major shopping centers in large cities.

Which is odd, when you consider the evidence of their value. One trial, back in 2014, found that they boosted purchase intent by twenty times. Another found a similar increase in product interaction, and found that users were much more likely to keep a retailer app installed if they received iBeacon notifications through it.

But it’s of course a chicken-and-egg problem: retailers are reluctant to invest much in a technology few consumers even know exists, and consumers don’t know about iBeacon technology because hardly anyone’s using it. It’s a particular stretch for small businesses to invest.

There are, though, a few companies aiming to allow even the smallest business, or non-profit, to begin using the technology. We looked at the Beaconic system some 18 months ago, and I’ve been playing with Live Beacon, a system which may be more appealing for reasons I’ll get to shortly …

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The units I have are prototypes, and the production units will vary slightly in appearance, but only marginally. They are black plastic boxes with a prominent Live Beacon logo. They measure a little over two inches square by less than an inch thick. They are waterproof and dustproof, the company saying that it is suitable for mounting both outside and in. Range is around 100 feet, and the battery lasts for about two years.

Each beacon is supplied with a numeric ID and a password. To program them, you visit the Live Beacon Portal and use these details to login. You can either set them to display a webpage – ideal if you already have customer offers or promos on dedicated pages – or you can create your own page from one of three templates provided.

This is the ‘no coding required’ part. It took me literally less than a minute to set one of my beacons to display a webpage, and around three minutes to set another to display an image, my own text and a link.

Here’s the interface to set it to open a webpage:

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And here’s one of the templates to create your own page (in this case, single image, text and link):

template

After that, I just hit the Update button and within seconds the beacon was sending out the page.

You can see in the top example that you can set the range of the beacon to anything from ‘Far’ (the maximum range of around 100 feet) down to ‘Touch,’ where the consumer needs to hold their phone against the beacon. The appropriate setting here will depend on how you’re using it. To broadcast a generic discount messages to passing shoppers, you’d use ‘Far.’ For promotions specific to a particular department, you might use ‘Medium.’ An art gallery might use ‘Near’ for a beacon installed in a doorway to tell you about the exhibits in that room, while a retailer or gallery might invite ‘Touch your phone to learn about this product/exhibit.’

As mentioned, consumers need to install an app to receive notifications and the content, and this is where our chicken-and-egg problem arises. The starter kit includes a poster to advise that you’re in a Beacon Zone and prompt you to download the app, but in practice a business is going to need to give them a reason to do so – such as a discount.

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Bad news & good news

The app situation is actually slightly worse than it appears at first glance: you not only need to persuade consumers to install an iBeacon app, you need to persuade them to install the right one.

Although you might imagine that iBeacon is a standard, it’s one designed to work on an app-by-app basis. The benefit for consumers is that they can install a retailer app to receive alerts from that particular brand without being bombarded by messages from every other retailer using iBeacons. But the obvious bad news for businesses is that your broadcasts are useless unless you can give consumers a good reason to install the right app for your beacons – the Live Beacon app in this case.

In the case of Live Beacons, however, there’s good news too: they are also compatible with Google’s version of iBeacons – known as Physical Web. Physical Web works differently, allowing any beacon app to receive broadcasts from any beacon. Even better, Physical Web support is baked right into the latest versions of Android, so people can receive notifications without even installing an app.

This means that while you’re only likely to reach a tiny percentage of iOS users – the ones you can persuade to install the Live Beacon app – you’ll reach a higher number of owners of the latest Android users.

Pricing & conclusions

Live Beacons are made by a British company, so pricing is in pounds sterling. You can buy them in packs of two, four, six and ten for prices ranging from £99 (around $122) to £449 (around $557). Shipping to the USA starts from £10 (around $12).

If Live Beacons only worked with the specific companion app, I think they’d be a hard sell for a small business or non-profit. The technology is just too immature for consumers to be in the habit of installing iBeacon apps needed to receive the broadcasts.

But Google’s Physical Web platform changes things significantly. Consumers with the latest high-end Android devices will receive Live Beacon broadcasts whether or not they have any beacon apps installed. And that means your message can reach a decent number of people.

If I ran a small business which needed to attract passing shoppers, I think a cost of around $134 would be a marketing experiment worth trying. The ease of setup means that you can be up-and-running within minutes, and you can quickly and easily amend your broadcast to try different promotional messages each day. An all-in cost of $134 to be able to test a different marketing message every day strikes me as pretty good value.

Live Beacon packs are available for pre-order from the company’s website, with shipping now expected next month. Pricing starts at £99 (around $122) plus £10 shipping (around $12).