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How sports leagues use iBeacons to complement in-stadium SMS

ibeacon in stadiums

IBeacon messaging on NBA's Golden State Warriors app.

Apple’s iBeacon technology increasingly excites marketers, especially those who see the technology as a way to drive responsive mobile experiences that delight visitors in sports stadiums and keep them loyal, but SMS still has an important role to play. 

Fifteen months after its widely chronicled rollout, the platform’s early popularity also has called into question the need for SMS programs that have underpinned in-stadium marketing programs for years. However, the technologies’ differing strengths and weaknesses suggest iBeacons can be an extra tool that rounds out the fan experience.

“It’s not an either-or, it’s both,” said Mark Tack, vice president of marketing for Chicago-based Vibes, whose in-venue mobile marketing clients have included professional sports leagues. “IBeacons are the latest crave that’s captured a lot of fanfare and are getting a lot of publicity. 

“IBeacons are great for the on-the-move fan and can provide timely content in just the right location,” he said. “But you also have the fan who is in their seat and text-message marketing is great to help advertisers of marketers and sports venues engage with fans on their mobile devices while they’re seated at an event.”

Selling points
Launched in mid-2013, iBeacon caused a stir with its ability to provide retailers and other small to medium enterprises with a way to target offers with pinpoint accuracy, as well as to simplify payments and enable on-site offers. Its low energy demands and low cost – as of May, iBeacon third-party manufactured hardware could be purchased for as little as $5 – also were big selling points.

IBeacon became the centerpiece of an Apple venture with Major League Baseball to develop an upgraded version of the league’s At the Ballpark application. The platform displayed welcome messages, exclusive content, maps and coupons according to fans’ locations within a particular stadium and the positioning of the beacons. Up till then, such precision targeting was not possible.

Today, iBeacon use at United States stadiums is growing. “The sporting experience is one where you need to stay relevant and continue to introduce something that’s new and exciting,” Mr. Tack said. “Every time the fans comes to the ballpark, you want to keep the experience fresh. All of the sports organizations have been early adopters for most mobile technologies.” 

Warriors' app includes a raft of features to drive engagement.

The National Football League tested beacons during this year’s Super Bowl, and 20 baseball stadiums are adding them this year. In one of the first live rollouts of proximity beacon technology at a major sporting venue, in March, the NBA’s Golden State Warriors began to integrate proximity technology into their mobile application and the Oracle Arena, the club’s home since the mid-1960s.

“Beacon-supported proximity marketing is eclipsing geofence-based push companies because we can send a message when someone is in line for the men’s room, not just in the stadium,” said Alex Bell, co-founder of Sonic Notify, the Warrior’s proximity-technology partner. “We have proved with GSW [Golden State Warriors] that when done right, it does drive fan engagement.

“GSW saw a 69 percent increase in seat upgrade revenue via app after installing our proximity marketing solution,” he said. 

In one promotion, first-time visitors to the team’s store received a mobile message about a coupon offer. Interacting with the message led to a video of Warriors player Harrison Barnes speaking directly to the fan. 

When fans were asked “What are you looking at?” the answer was “a Harrison Barnes video, not a coupon, although the coupon was there,” per Mr. Bell.

Texting criticized as limiting
Mr. Bell is in the camp of those who criticize in-stadium texting programs at professional baseball, football and basketball games as too limited to drive fan engagement.

“Texting is too broad,” he said. “If there is no app to drive a consistent message then it is a one-time shot.” 

“There are two magic things about proximity marketing that make it special,” he said. “The right time and place delivery and the fact that the delivery mechanism is the user’s own phone. In-stadium texting satisfies the second criteria but misses on the important first criteria.”

Warriors' digital strategy showcases iBeacon technology.

Those who fail to recognize the differences between iBeacon and SMS are missing an opportunity to reach customers with two powerful technologies.

“IBeacon is actually triggering content based on location,” Mr. Tack said. “So when we think of SMS, there’s a lot of ways you can use SMS which is full of content. When you compare a content technology to a trigger technology, it’s kind of comparing apples to oranges.”

Clients’ use of SMS
Among the ways Mr. Tack’s clients use stadium SMS programs is the ever-popular text-to-win invitation. “You can do an onscreen call to action using SMS,” he said. “The fan is sitting in his seat and in between innings on the Jumbotron or a huge sponsorship sign he sees a Verizon commercial or a Pepsi commercial or a McDonald’s commercial that says: ‘Text Big Mac to 84237 for your chance to win.’ That’s creating engagement for fans in their seats. There’s no iBeacon technology related to that.”

Voting on in-game action also remains a fan favorite. Between innings, an onscreen text might ask: What was your favorite play so far? And invite fans to text A, B or C one of three video highlights, showing the tally on screen. 

“Text is also great for distributing mobile wallet content,” Mr. Tack said. “For example, ‘Text Pepsi to 84237 to receive a free Passbook or Google Wallet offer for the next inning only.’ Or ‘Only good for the next 20 minutes.’ The text message becomes the communication vehicle, the distribution vehicle of valuable content.”

Dynamic duo
Others see iBeacon playing a dynamic role alongside texting in mobile sports-marketing.

“There are great use cases for both,” said Blake Sirarch, vice president of design for Willow Tree Apps, which worked with the Barclays Center, home of basketball’s Brooklyn Nets, in developing the team’s app. In-stadium texting provides a one-to-one communication channel that makes it possible for venue operations personnel to respond to guest needs in real-time. 

Beacons’ ability to disseminate targeted messages to a greater number of fans in a controlled way allowed the Barclays Center to use the technology to spread the word about news and upcoming events by placing beacons at points throughout the arena, he said. Fans are instantly prompted to sign up for the Barclays Center newsletter when they walk through the doors.

“The concept of iBeacons is an exciting one but the trick is getting people to engage with the promotion,” said Alex Jarvis, UK sales manager with Britain’s Boost Communications, which worked on soccer club Manchester City’s mobile program. “The US market is more open to this. 

“In the UK we are less reluctant to participate in such engagements. I suppose like everything it depends on the details. If something is of interest you're going to engage with it.”

Final Take

Michael Barris is staff reporter for Mobile Marketer, New York.

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Michael Barris is staff reporter on Mobile Marketer and Mobile Commerce Daily, New York.

 
Related content: Messaging, mobile, mobile commerce, mobile marketing, Mark Tack, Vibes, Apple, iBeacon, SMS, Alex Bell, Sonic Notify, Blake Sirarch, Willow Tree Apps, Alex Jarvis, Boost Communications

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