Get the Context! Context Based Selling in Mobile Applications

It’s 4 PM on a breezy September afternoon and you are strolling through the myriad of streets that crisscross Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This area happens to have one of the world’s highest concentrations of cafes and eating joints. The urge to have a coffee and a snack hits you. There are two to three Au Bon Pains, a Peet’s Coffee & Tea, a couple of Dunkin Donuts outlets, Starbucks stores and so many more – all within a few hundred feet of you.

Which establishment will get your business today?

Well it so happens that you had scanned a QR code of Au Bon Pain off a billboard just a few weeks before while passing through an airport terminal because it offered some digital coupons that you could unlock in their mobile app if you downloaded it which you did, and installed the app on your phone. What’s more, you happened to already use up the coupons at the Au Bon Pain at the airport terminal.

However, that September afternoon near Harvard Square, that same mobile app, now running in the background on your phone has determined from your GPS location that you are near another Au Bon Pain. It immediately asks for and receives from Au Bon Pain’s servers an instant coupon that can be redeemed only within the next 2 hours!

You hear your phone go beep and vibrate, you fish it out to see that there is a very attractive discount coupon waiting for you to redeem at the Au Bon Pain that ‘just happens to be in your sight’!

Guess who got your business!

Here’s another similar scenario: You are on a road trip, it’s getting late in the day and it’s time to find a hotel to stay over for the night. The Howard Johnson app that is installed on your phone detects via GPS or cell tower location that you are within a few miles of a Howard Johnson hotel. It’s easy to see that the rest of this scenario is similar to the Au Bon Pain scenario described above.

The establishments mentioned in these scenarios are purely for illustrative purposes – I am not claiming that they actually have such apps, (they probably need to if they don’t yet) – but these situations do illustrate how many retailers today are using a technique called “Proximity Based Marketing” to convert traffic in the vicinity of the store into traffic into their store.

The above two scenarios also illustrate the use of the GPS sensor or cell tower based location service on mobile devices to enhance sales. There are ways to use other sensors on the phone to detect proximity. For example Sonic Notify’s audio technology lets you beam digital information such as coupons from an in-store audio system to the mobile devices of people visiting the store through the use of imperceptible acoustic content that is encoded into the audio stream emanating from the audio system.

An interesting thing to note in the above scenarios is that proximity based selling happens to be a special case of a well-established marketing practice called “context based selling”.

The “context” detected by the mobile in the above scenarios is the geo-location and the time of day. For example if it had been 12 PM instead of late afternoon, the same Au Bon Pain app could have sent you a discount coupon on a sandwich meal!

The context can be built using even more complex business rules that go beyond place and time, and look at your recent purchase history, aspects of your profile that you have made available to the app and so forth.

The possibilities are limitless.


Check out my new book on mobile technology on Amazon that contains a much wider treatment of the topic of using mobile technology in Retail along with infographics on how to use context based selling and location based technologies to drive footfalls into your store and increase the user’s basket size.

* This article acknowledges all brand names mentioned as trademarks of their respective owners.

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