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A way to think about the role of beacons in digital-to-physical convergence

For Bluetooth beacons to be successful more than technology is required. Success requires the power of ideas that capture peoples’ imagination and drive investment decisions in order for a fledgling ecosystem to achieve escape velocity.

If the pen is mightier than the sword, the metaphor is the atomic bomb in a writer’s arsenal. A good metaphor can make complex concepts clear, make an idea sticky and give it legs that turn it viral.   If story telling is key to exercising leadership, metaphors are the condiments that make a good story really tasty and keep people coming back for seconds. When Winston Churchill introduced the term “iron curtain” he give birth to an idea that has out lived him and legions of the people who propagated its usage.

Early in my career I worked for a technology company that was in hyper growth mode. One of its not so secret weapons was Casey Powell, the CEO who was to story telling what George Carlin is to bad language in stand-up (a master).   Not everyone agreed with Casey’s decisions, but everyone could agree that his stories united us, engineers and the sales guys, the yin and yang of any startup. We shared a common sense of purpose, keeping the express train on the rails. According to Casey, we weren’t selling UNIX servers; we were white water rafting guides helping our customers navigate perilous waters. We were “second surgeons”, the guys that cleaned up the mess after the cut priced operator messed up a patient’s knee. It was only then that the price sensitive customer would decide it was worth paying more to get it right.

As a result of listening to Casey over the years I’ve acquired a taste for the metaphor. When explaining a new business idea, if the metaphor was missing, then it was like eating a meal with no salt; it felt like something important was missing.

Back at Qualcomm Retail Solutions in 2013, at the time our division was giving birth to its Gimbal Bluetooth Beacon offering, my office was next to Kevin Hunter’s. Kevin led Product Management (he is now the COO of Gimbal), I was the strategy guy, trying to herd the cats in our executive meetings with mixed success. Our interactions were mainly focused on him finding new ways to point out the excessive size of the monitor on my desk. One of the more productive conversations we had was brainstorming the best metaphor to explain the significance of this new Bluetooth beacon thing. Between us we came up with “Beacons are digital cookies in the physical world”. Not bad; web cookies provide context, recording the visits of a person on a web page. Beacons do something similar; they provide a trigger to map, not the click-path but the foot-path through a store. From that, analytics, personalization and marketing programs can be built. I’d like to claim the “cookie metaphor” was my idea. It feels like it was, but you know what they say, failure is an orphan and success has many fathers, so it could just as easily have been Kevin’s inspiration. I think I may have been the first to use the cookie metaphor in a major presentation.

I had the privilege of speaking at a Mobile Monday event on beacons, which enjoyed over 800 registrants. Some people actually paid to attend, and I appropriated a photo of a chocolate chip cookie to illustrate the “digital cookies for the physical world” line. Qualcomm normally exercises great discipline over trademarks but I may have used a picture of a chocolate chip cookie without getting a letter from the appropriate manufacturer. When the picture started to get tweeted and re-tweeted I was horrified. I was sweating because I knew if our legal team saw it I would be spanked. Fortunately they didn’t and I have left Qualcomm now, so unless Nestle come after me directly, things should be OK. I have to confess to having used the metaphor since leaving Qualcomm during the beacon training courses I have been teaching. Doubtless some royalties are due to my ex-employer for that usage.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear one of the presenters at BeaconConf use the cookie metaphor last week, so I guess the pony has left the barn and its too late for the lawyers to close the doors.

I would like to offer another metaphor in return for the “stolen cookie”. “Beacons are the tendons connecting the digital and physical worlds”.   From what I recall from biology 101, tendons connect muscles to bones. In this case the bones are the brick and mortar stores and the muscles are the digital marketing systems (campaign management and recommendations engines). The metaphor implies that the same kinds of tools that Amazon has used to build its web shopping experience can now be applied to brick and mortar retailers.

You never really know where ideas like this actually originate, maybe somewhere in a soup that is bubbling away in our subconscious, a kind of gumbo, based on ingredients fed to it by the actions that our conscious mind takes. I like the tendon metaphor so I will claim paternity here. Maybe blogs are the birth certificates of new metaphors.

It’s possible that there may have been more than a few metaphors used in this blog on metaphors. Hopefully none were harmed in its production. If you have been counting, I thank you. Do let me know how many you found.