Mac’s Convenience installs Bluetooth-powered marketing

Canadians that walk into a Mac’s Convenience Stores Inc. location later this year might look up and glance an ad for a refreshing cola on a large digital signage display as they simultaneously feel their iPhone vibrate in their pocket.

The ad will instruct them to look at their phone, because they just got a coupon that will return a 15 per cent discount on the pop being advertised. Don’t be alarmed, it’s nothing like the technology featured in the dystopian future of Minority Report – just a couple of Bluetooth dongles plugged into those digital signs.

iSign Media Corp., which has headquarters in both Vancouver and Toronto, has made an arrangement with Pinpoint Media Group to provide proximity marketing at the 1400 Mac’s locations across Canada. The IBM partner makes passive Bluetooth devices with software that can send a multimedia transmission directly to any smartphone that’s in range and has its Bluetooth chip turned on.

Using Bluetooth technology to send marketing messages directly to cell phones in a specific area has been experimented with in the U.S. But other mobile marketing methods using SMS messages or mobile apps have proven more popular. But by providing proximity marketing, Bluetooth is worth another look, says Alex Romanov, president of iSign.

At convenience stores, those dongles will be sending coupons that are “the right message at the right time in the right place,” Romanov says. “Most channels use cell providers to send a message to your number or your e-mail address. It’s often not really relevant.”

iSign’s hardware will be deployed onto Pinpoint Media Group’s digital signage footprint in Quebec first (where Mac’s is known as Couche-Tard), and then Ontario later this year. A typical arrangement at a Mac’s store is to have one 32-inch screen in the store aisles and two 17-inch screens near the point of sale, according to Enmanuel Rumbos, president of the Toronto-based firm.

“Nobody will do something for nothing,” he says. “If you can tailor a message on digital signage and provide them with information, then you tell them to look at your mobile device to find a coupon.”

The dongles are able to send direct messages to most smartphones without pairing, except for BlackBerrys. BlackBerry owners will need to accept a pairing request and enter in a pass code (the universally used 0000) to receive the coupons. Most cell phone users leave Bluetooth turned on to work with wireless headsets or other devices. Several provinces have passed hands-free driving laws and Bluetooth devices have quickly become the go-to method for talking while behind the wheel.

“Picture it as a perimeter fence determined by the range set on the Bluetooth dongle, which is about 150 to 200 meters” Rumbos says. Once that fence is breached by a mobile device that has Bluetooth, the solution picks them up.”

The message transmitted could be a bar code, QR code, or other types of multimedia. It could be scanned at the check-out to be logged. The device also keeps some basic analytic information such as the make and model of the smartphone, what time the message was sent, and whether it was accepted or rejected.

The dongles can also recognize a returning customer by referencing its database for the smartphone’s Bluetooth Media Access Control (MAC) address. Using that database to build intelligent customer profiles is a distinct possibility down the road, Romanov says.

“This person comes in every Wednesday and always go for a Coke product,” he says. “Give them a special offer and see if they bite on a six pack.”

The technology protects privacy because it doesn’t log any personal details about an individual, Romanov adds. Other mobile marketing methods would require a phone number to send a SMS message, or an e-mail address.

iSign has been an IBM partner for three years and is already providing its Bluetooth technology in China, Shanghai and Singapore. It’s also being used in Vancouver restaurants to send coupons to those walking by. But Mac’s is the first major footprint for the company in North America, with its stores serving 1.5 million people nationwide every day.

It’s a good fit, according to Rumbos. Much like the candy placed by the cash register, proximity marketing is viewed as another way to push more sales once a customer is in the store.

“That’s like gold to them,” he says. “This is where marketing is going.”

Pinpoint and iSign have agreed to a revenue-sharing deal for the network. The interactive Bluetooth features will be available to advertisers who buy time on Pinpoint’s digital signage.

Quebec locations of the corporate-owned Mac’s convenience chain will get the Bluetooth dongles by end of 2011’s first quarter, Rumbos says.

Brian Jackson is a Senior Writer at ITBusiness.ca. Follow him on Twitter, read his blog, and check out the IT Business Facebook Page.

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