At the Marketing Research Association’s Insights & Strategy Conference in June, Sriram Subramanian (@sriram_s) of ZoomRX introduced researchers to the potential of, and possible problems with, iBeacon, saying “technology doesn’t always play out as it supposed to.” But iBeacon has great potential for uncovering new Moments of Truth.

Moments of Truth

“What are Moments of Truth?” Sriram asked. “The point in experience that makes or breaks the decision or the relationship.”

A. G. Lafley, chairman of P&G, defined the First Moment of Truth as “the moment when the consumer is looking at the store shelf and trying to decide which product to purchase.”

“When we collect feedback about what happened at that moment, there is a lag,” Sriram said. “People respond with vague and fading memories. Instead of getting the actual truth, we are getting a pale reflection of what happened in the Moment of Truth.”

How important is to get feedback at the moment of truth, rather than wait for a week or month to mine recollections and rationalizations? P&G built two full-scale mock stores in Geneva and Cincinnati to bring in customers and conduct MOT (Moment Of Truth) research as they selected items from the shelves of the mock stores. “Perhaps the most effective technique is to re-create the MOT and study it in controlled environment. But most of us don’t have the ability to build two stores!”

The hope is that iBeacon might be a simpler way.

iBeacon vs. GPS

In June of 2013, Apple announced the iBeacon standard as an indoor positioning system. It overcomes a lot of drawbacks of GPS and NFC (Near Field Communication).

GPS has much greater range of error than iBeacon, which can identify transmitters within a few centimeters, several yards, or over 10 yards away. GPS simply doesn’t have this level of accuracy: it might return the same latitude and longitude, yet if this is within a mall it might be from a Macy’s store on top of a Barnes & Noble store on top of a Sears store. Within a store, it is not accurate to meters around a specific location.

Instead of pushing the survey out when consumers enter or exit Macy’s, iBeacon can push consumers a survey when they walk away from the shoe department at Macy’s, asking what was bought or why nothing was bought. To accomplish this, the consumer must have a mobile app installed that receives and acts on iBeacon signals.

Sriram said, “GPS is the consumer at the store. iBeacon is the consumer in a particular aisle at the store.” [Another difference: GPS pings government satellites; iBeacon pings transmitters installed by the retailer.]

iBeacon vs. NFC

One reason NFC (Near Field Communication) never took off was that Apple never signed on to the standard, according to Sriram. [Additionally, its range is only 8 inches.]

“iBeacon is very specific, very context aware, very location aware. The possibilities are very intriguing. You can buy and plaster iBeacon transmitters throughout your stores or stadiums. Every smartphone is potential receiver. Retail is excited for opportunities for pushing coupons, for ‘in the moment’ discounting: they want to be able to push you coupon for 10% off shoes when you are right in that aisle.”

Since all iOS devices can act as transmitters, there are 700 million possible transmitters, giving “a huge head start to this technology compared to NFCs.”

iBeacon Opportunities for Researchers

Macy’s, Target, Apple, MLB, Old Navy, JC Penney, BestBuy, and Crate & Barrel have all installed iBeacon transmitters in stores – Apple has rolled it out throughout all U.S. retail outlets.

“Microlocation offers great opportunities for researchers,” said Sriram, in industries ranging from retail and healthcare to events and automotive. For events, imagine conducting survey activity during the event, based on attendees’ locations. For healthcare, track the patient/physician interaction: “Physicians rapidly cycle through patients and don’t have as much time and mental bandwidth as they should, so there is interest in studying this in more detail. Learn the language that patients use to describe these interactions.” Are diabetes patients get actively spoken to about managing their condition? Too often physician interviews about such interactions are divorced from the actual event.

Broad Challenges for Researchers

Despite the potential for microlocation, Sriram worries about the future of iBeacon, posing these questions:

  • Is iBeacon the new QR code? – “There’s a Tumblr, Pictures of People Scanning QR-codes. The Tumblr is blank. It took me a minute to get it! I was a big believer in QR codes, and distributed 10,000 of them to prospects. Not one visitor ever came to our website through a QR code. Yet, I am optimistic about iBeacon. Even as Apple signals NFC won’t happen, Google seem happy to sign on to anything with broad use.”
  • If people download apps that recognize iBeacon, will these become a vehicle for spam? – “It is difficult to behave responsibly when you have that kind of access, to not just push everyone some coupon. This is a fairly high risk: it will take real discipline to make sure we don’t make this available for spam.”
  • Will researchers get outbid by coupons and promos? Will research feature in the top two or three things that consumers want to do with this? Sriram worries that shoppers will ignore survey requests. “Will we as researchers win our war against marketers? if our historical wars are anything to go by, you must have reasonable skepticism.”
  • Will everything align? “Think of the details of having an app open when entering a store with a study going on. When everything needs to align, if one link in the chain breaks, there is trouble.”


iBeacon’s Potential

“I have tried to be cautiously optimistic, to emphasize that something that comes from iBeacon could be interesting,” Sriram concluded. “I’ve not struck the usual tone and rhetoric, because I was burned by the experience of QR codes. I hope I have been truthful rather than rhetorical.”

Author Notes:

Jeffrey Henning

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Jeffrey Henning, IPC is a professionally certified researcher and has personally conducted over 1,400 survey research projects. Jeffrey is a member of the Insights Association and the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers. In 2012, he was the inaugural winner of the MRA’s Impact award, which “recognizes an industry professional, team or organization that has demonstrated tremendous vision, leadership, and innovation, within the past year, that has led to advances in the marketing research profession.” In 2022, the Insights Association named him an IPC Laureate. Before founding Researchscape in 2012, Jeffrey co-founded Perseus Development Corporation in 1993, which introduced the first web-survey software, and Vovici in 2006, which pioneered the enterprise-feedback management category. A 35-year veteran of the research industry, he began his career as an industry analyst for an Inc. 500 research firm.