When I was a younger man and still going through my university studies, one of the basic concepts that we were introduced in marketing, was that any product could be evaluated as a combination of 3 different types of ‘features’:

  • First, you have features that are considered ‘essentials’, which the product simply has to have if it is even to be considered within the product category that it claims to be in. For example, if you build a car, it has to be able to move, have a steering wheel, properly functioning brakes, etc.
  • Then you have features that go a step beyond the essentials, that give you some differentiating premium over your competitors: a car with extra low carbon emissions, or a much better performing engine.
  • Finally, you have features which are unexpected innovations, that the market may not even be aware that it wanted, and which put you a huge step ahead from competition… a car that can fly!

What was more critical for us to understand in this model, is that markets evolve, and that what is considered an innovation soon becomes just a differentiation, and eventually comes to be thought of as just a product essential. Just a few years ago, the idea of a self-driving car was ground-breaking. Soon, with more and more companies providing their own self-driving options in premium models, it will be just a differentiation. And 20 years from now, it may be illegal to build a car without a self-driving capability altogether.

I want you to think of your marketing and communications strategy as a ‘product’ in itself, going through the same model.  If we want to be successful marketers our strategies and approaches need to evolve as well, and we need to understand when certain marketing paradigms have peaked, and are no longer giving us as much values as they used to. Two decades ago, doing online marketing was an innovation. Now it’s an essential. Same thing goes for social media marketing. And I would argue, so too the app-based marketing paradigm is no longer the game-changing innovation it used to be.

I remember some years ago first hearing the term ‘the app-based economy’. After the original iphone came out, there was an excitement around the idea of mobile apps. I remember online articles comparing the latest iphone with whatever flagship Android phone was popular at the time, discussing the comparing the number of ‘apps’ available in the market of each phone as a crucial feature. And I remember when the term ‘App Store Optimization’ first appeared, and first started being a major concern for companies.

Does anybody still know, or count, how many mobile phone apps are out there? Once you’ve gone past very, very, very many, is it that important? The mobile apps market has become over-saturated. Everything has an app, and everybody has become an app developer. I don’t want to imply that mobile apps are not important, to the contrary, what I am saying is that they are quickly becoming so universal, that they can no longer be considered an innovation, or a means of differentiating our communications approach from that of our competitors. And yet furthermore, mobile apps have a range of fundamental issues that become even more pronounced as the market is maturing.

Here’s the number one problem with mobile phone apps: if somebody has not downloaded your app, they cannot use it. It’s that simple, but that fundamental. You are spending thousands upon thousands to build an amazing mobile app experience, and then it turns out nobody is using it. We have ample evidence and studies by now, that most people simply don’t use more than a handful of critical apps on any regular basis (things like their web browser, the Facebook app, the Twitter app, Instagram, Uber, etc). People may download apps, but they often just stay installed on a phone doing nothing, until at some point they’re uninstalled. And as the number of available apps increases, overwhelmed consumers are more than likely to avoid installing more on their phone that are again likely to be rarely used, and only makes their device more bloated.

Mobile phone apps provide us with two things: content, and functionality, and they are important because they  make these immediately accessible through a device like the mobile phone that we can have with us at any time, and in any place. What proximity solutions can allow us to do is move beyond this app-based approach, enabling a new marketing paradigm where content and functionality can be delivered when it is more relevant to a customer, and available to everybody without the need of a preinstalled phone app.

Proximity solutions and services (I sometimes call them Physical Web solutions, borrowing the term from Google’s own Physical Web project), are one from the newest cycle of trends and buzzwords currently evolving in the technology world, along with things like the ‘Internet Of Things’, ‘Smart City Technologies’, ‘Virtual Reality’, etc). As the name suggest, they reference the capability to communicate with an individual based on their proximity to an object or location. Which is of course nothing new in itself, services such as Google Maps or Yelp which offer location-based data have been around for years. What is new, is the emergence of technologies that make proximity services more direct, cost-effective, and free from the need of an intermediary app between the customer and communicating business.

Most traditional location based communication applications such as the aforementioned Google Maps or Yelp, rely on GPS to identify a user’s location. Yet GPS can be inaccurate, it only works through the use of an intermediary mobile app (which can be expensive to build and difficult to get consumers to download) and is a purely location-based, rather than proximity based solution. Meaning that via GPS I can target individuals entering a specific static location, but not individuals approaching an object which may change positions at any time.

What we have now instead are technologies that allow true proximity based communication through the native capabilities of a phone, or of commonly installed apps on it such as a web browser (think Eddystone Bluetooth beacons, or NFC), and without the need for development and marketing of a different bespoke app. By utilizing inexpensive broadcasting devices which can be ‘tagged’ and embedded directly into any location or product, we can point consumers to rich content and interactivity online, rather than through a locally installed app. In this new way of communicating, the physical items, products or locations in the world around us are the source of the rich digital experience that the consumer receives on their phone, rather than a software app installed on the device, even as those products and items move within the physical world around us..

Let me try and give you an example: I go out to a cafeteria, dressed in my pair of jeans, a pair of shoes, and a shirt. I sit down at my table, and take out my phone. And right there on my phone, just as I can access all the apps I have installed on my phone, I can find options to open digital experiences delivered by the designer of my shoes, the manufacturer of my jeans, or even the cafeteria I’m sitting in.  Furthermore, these experiences are just as rich as what I can get from any mobile app, are personalised to me, available without me having to preinstall anything on my phone, and only available when I’m near the physical object or place they’re relevant for.

In a communications paradigm based on proximity services, the engagement experience is available to the consumer when they are in a location where it is most relevant to them, and goes away when the consumer moves away from the object or location for which the digital experience to be communicated relates to. Critically, by not relying on an app, we can reach out to engage with every single individual near our point of interest. Whereas app-based communication is most suitable for strengthening brand loyalty amongst those consumers who, having taken the proactive step of downloading our app we can assume have already been converted, with app-free proximity based communications, we can drive brand-awareness amongst those customers who may have never even heard of us before.

These capabilities are not made possible through just one single technology, neither do we propose that they are an either / or alternative to building our own app. I am a proponent of what I call an omni-channel proximity based approach, proposing the use of multiple connectivity technologies coordinated together, to enable both location as well as proximity based communication with or without an app. Eddystone, Wifi, ibeacon, GPS, or NFC all have their position in a properly coordinated communication strategy. Many of these technologies are still after all evolving at a very rapid pace, and an omni-channel approach can help us target both consumers who are technology pioneers, as well as those consumers who are still somewhat behind the technology curve. What is certain is that for marketers wishing to stay one step ahead of competition, understanding and embracing proximity communication can be a critical part of a successful engagement strategy.