Irritated consumers could turn the air blue

5 Jun 2008

Ads via Bluetooth herald a new era in mobile marketing. But will consumers be up in arms over its intrusive nature?

The best things in life might well be free after all. During the usual lunchtime race to grab a bite to eat and faced with a dizzying array of choices, you opt for the restaurant offering coffee at no charge when you buy a bagel.

You might be waiting in line to see an up-and-coming new band when you’re offered the chance to download their latest MP3 track for nothing. Pausing at a bus stop on holidays, you get a free transport timetable, along with local mapping information and a small sightseeing guide.

What all three scenarios have in common is that none of these offers is in hard-copy, paper format; instead they’re software files, beamed directly to your mobile phone at no cost.

Proximity marketing is the latest form of mobile advertising. It uses Bluetooth, a short-range wireless service which can send large volumes of information to nearby devices.

As ad formats go, Bluetooth has several factors in its favour. Unlike text messages which cost money to send and receive, Bluetooth carries no cost for the sender or the recipient.

“As a content delivery mechanism, Bluetooth is very efficient because it’s free. It doesn’t go over the mobile data networks so there’s no data charge,” says Eamon Hession, CEO of the mobile marketing company Púca.

Many mobile phones now come with Bluetooth as standard. According to data from MultiMedia Intelligence, more than 300 million feature-rich mobile phones are expected to be shipped worldwide this year.

Another plus point, as far as marketers are concerned, is a high level of consumer acceptance. According to research from Universal McCann last year, Bluetooth is the most popular mobile ad format among recipients.

Almost three quarters of people surveyed (71pc) said they were in favour of it, whereas 61pc rejected traditional banner or TV ads on their handsets.

“I’d be pretty cynical about whether anybody would engage with any of these offers but actually the response rates are very high,” says Sean O’Sullivan, chief technology officer with Rococo Software. “I’ve gone from being sceptical to being quite positive about it, when it’s used judiciously in the right place.”

The right place seems to be venues which attract large volumes of people. According to O’Sullivan, Bluetooth marketing is becoming popular in the US at cinemas, where people queuing in the foyer can receive ringtones, wallpapers and clips related to the movie they’re about to see.

“The latest version of Bluetooth has enough bandwidth to send short clips relatively quickly,” O’Sullivan says.

Shopping centres are another prime location for conducting Bluetooth marketing campaigns, as they offer a heavy footfall in a relatively confined space.

From a marketing perspective, the numbers are encouraging. A technology trial involving 45,000 shoppers at a mall in Newcastle in the UK found 20pc of people chose to download Bluetooth content.

The Powerscourt and Jervis shopping centres in Dublin have been experimenting with the medium. Bluemedia, the company which is running the trial for the centres, was specifically set up to offer proximity marketing services.

Dean McKillen and his business partner Luke Keily (pictured) formed Bluemedia last year, having hit on the idea when they were studying economics in UCD.

“We saw how the students were sending pictures and videos by Bluetooth; we thought it would be a good idea for advertising,” says McKillen.

The company employs its own programmers to develop the technology, which has already been used in nightclubs, festivals, colleges and restaurants.

“The beauty about this is the location-specific offers you can give,” says McKillen. “Over time, we will start making content more specific to other parts of Ireland and not just Dublin.”

The technology requires people to be within metres of a Bluetooth base station, which makes it possible to offer highly targeted content, adds O’Sullivan. “Because of the short range, you could produce different offers for people standing outside a kids’ movie, compared to others waiting to see a horror movie.”

Bluetooth’s supporters have to tread carefully to avoid the problems encountered by text-message marketing.

In Ireland, the Data Protection Commissioner has been especially keen to clamp down on unsolicited text messages and took several court cases last year to stop companies sending texts to consumers who had not opted in to receive them.

The Mobile Marketing Association, which recently opened an Irish chapter, is drawing up guidelines on best practice to avoid running into similar difficulties.

“There’s a real need for it,” says Hession. “You need to be careful with Bluetooth that you don’t send people unwanted messages.”

Some versions of Bluetooth can send a signal up to 100m away, so there is a risk that uninterested passersby could be sent content. There are various technical fixes to avoid this potentially intrusive aspect.

In Germany, promotions are limited to broadcasting a signal within around one metre of the signage advertising the offer. It’s believed that people who come within range of the signal have consented to receive the content.

“We recommend to clients that they limit it to particular closed environments, such as Electric Picnic, or in certain stores, pubs or events like trade shows,” says Hession.

“These are the kinds of things that help ensure only people amenable to receiving content are the ones getting it.”

Hession says the key to Bluetooth will be to integrate it with other marketing efforts.

Púca has worked with brands in Ireland and in China on Bluetooth-based campaigns. An in-store promotion at Adidas’ Shanghai flagship outlet resulted in an 80pc-plus acceptance rate, Hession claims.

In this case, the brochure sent via Bluetooth contained a link to a mobile website, as well as a competition offer.

“In terms of how a brand engages with consumers on a mobile, it’s not just about Bluetooth or SMS or mobile internet – it’s about mixing and matching them.”

In its early years, Bluetooth suffered from a perception gap as few people knew what it was for, but O’Sullivan says this has changed. “Consumers are becoming more educated about how to use it. Car headsets have driven adoption of Bluetooth.”

Bluetooth marketing is in its infancy. Data from Jupiter Research found more than two thirds of mobile marketers in Europe are likely to spend less than $50,000 on campaigns this year.

“Some of the stuff that’s going on is experimental, to some extent,” says Hession.

“But it has massive potential and is getting a lot of traction. I wouldn’t say Ireland is behind anywhere else.”

Dublin shoppers hit with a bolt from the blue
Dublin’s Jervis Centre mall is a test site for proximity marketing through Bluetooth technology and it has been adjusting its strategy during the trial period.

Working with Bluemedia, some of the stores within the centre had been offering passersby money-off coupons sent to their mobile phones.

Consumer response rates were initially high but then tapered off, with acceptance dropping from 55pc to 42pc over two months.

While some shoppers were happy to accept offers, others weren’t interested.

Now, visitors to the centre can choose to receive a free software file with up-to-date news, as well as store info, maps, games, special offers and vouchers.

The file is distributed from 10 Bluetooth units located on the roof.

An estimated 35,000 shoppers pass through the mall’s doors every day and around 20pc have their phone’s Bluetooth setting switched on by default.

Jervis management want to increase this number to 40pc. It plans to place billboard adverts at the front door and the courtesy desk reminding people to turn on their mobile’s Bluetooth.

By Gordon Smith

Pictured: the marketing world’s new frontier – Luke Keily and Dean McKillen from Bluemedia