Unacast has struck strategic alliances with proximity marketing platforms Gimbal, Tamoco, and Signal360 to uniformly pursue the goal of using beacons and other “near me” mobile sensors to promote retargeting efforts for online and offline marketing.

The four categories the group is aiming its beacon-based retargeting services are retailers, sports venues, auto dealerships, and quick serve restaurants, Unacast co-founder and CEO Thomas Walle tells GeoMarketing.

The idea of proximity-based retargeting is based on the use of Bluetooth-powered beacons or other sensors that send out messages via apps or to connected devices via the Physical Web to consumers who have agreed to accept certain brands’ communications.

In general, retargeting typically involves sending an ad to a device after a consumer visits a website and appears to express some interest in that related merchandise. That expressed interest can be registered by moving their computer’s cursor over a particular item or leaving specific products in an e-commerce site’s virtual cart.

In the case of proximity retargeting, the promise is a lot more specific — and tricky. A likely example could involve someone visiting a physical store and opening that brand’s mobile app on their phone to accept a push notification to obtain information on a product, or to find their way around the store. After leaving the store, that person would get ads on their connected devices intended to get them to come back and buy a certain item based on where they were in the shop.

But for Signal360 CEO Alex Bell, that sort of scenario represents the very basic steps.

“Proximity marketing can drive value far beyond the simple triggering of a beacon in clients’ mobile apps,” says Bell. “Rich data can be used to target clients’ app users through traditional web advertising and social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Signal360 is proud to be one of the first PSPs to launch a retargeting product ‘Callback’, and our partnership with Unacast helps expand our own capabilities by allowing us to seamlessly integrate data with premier DSPs and ad-serving platforms.”

The Proximity Retargeting Challenge

Despite lingering misconceptions among even the most sophisticated CMOs and agency directors, beacons — by themselves — can’t collect data. Beacons simply broadcast a signal that can be picked up by a mobile app when a customer has Bluetooth turned on. Beacons allow mobile apps on both iOS and Android to “listen” for beacon signals in the physical world and then react accordingly.

From there, however, beacons can encourage consumers to agree to share additional information from their smartphones, which then allows for gathering data on where else consumers go and when, as well as whether they’ve come back to a store or not.

And that’s where Unacast comes in. The company doesn’t make or market hardware or software powering beacons or other related proximity sensors. Instead, over the past two years, the company has been building a global network of proximity service providers — and the consumer location and attribution data that they’re able to collect from their brand clients.

Unacast, which started in Norway two years ago and now has a base in New York, has come a long way with a single focus in mind: to be “the backend, the one API, for all proximity,” so that all players in the ecosystem — on both the supply side (proximity and location services entities) and demand side (media and ad companies) — can use harmonized and aligned proximity data, tagging structures and privacy through the Unacast PROX network.

By working closely with Gimbal, Tamoco, and Signal360, Unacast’s Walle believes they can build on and accelerate the momentum that location-based marketing and proximity has attracted from agencies, demand-side platforms, exchanges, and brands directly.

“Gimbal’s Proximity Data Platform combines superior technology and robust, accurate, and secure location data to create new audience insights and revenue streams for our PDP Publisher partners,” says Paul Cheng, Gimbal’s SVP and GM of Marketplaces at Gimbal, which just expanded its own reach by unveiling a supply-side platform for app developers who want to better control their first-party geo-data. “Gimbal is excited to partner with Unacast, a pioneer in proximity data aggregation, to expand brand and retailer mobile targeting capabilities with first-party proximity data.”

The Coke Test

Retargeting has been at the center of Unacast’s value proposition since the company was started barely six months after its founders sold the music streaming service Tidal to rapper/impresario Jay-Z.

One of Unacast’s earliest, and most high-profile successes with beacon-based retargeting came in a Coca-Cola campaign last fall.

That effort connected Norwegian moviegoers who initially opted-in to receive a beacon-based push notification at a local theater. Here’s how the exchange for opting-in to receive additional marketing messages from Coke worked: to encourage consumers to share their geo-data, those consumers received a free Coke that could be redeemed at the theater’s concession stand.

The unstated promise of retargeting is that users will also receive more “relevant” advertising — that is, ads from products and brands they say they’re interested in. The second part of that promise is that by sharing their geo-data and other digital information, consumers would agree to be sent ads when outside the theater — but only at intervals when it seems they would be most open to receiving an ad based on where they happened to be at a given moment. In theory, at least, “greater relevance” should mean greater context and less interruptions.

In short, the campaign closed the loop around mobile advertising, point-of-sale marketing, and real-time retargeting — all thanks to beacons.

Roughly 60 percent of customers clicked through that offer, a number that Unacast called “extraordinary” considering that the app developer that ran Coke’s Norwegian effort typically achieved an average clickthrough rates of 0.18 percent on mobile ad ads.

Still, bringing proximity-based retargeting to a wider landscape — such as the U.S. and broader European regions — has remained difficult. But only up to now, Walle says.

Brands Are Catching Up To Mobile

Advertisers are increasingly looking to geofencing, beacons, social media, and other tools associated with location-based to not only prove that a message generated foot-traffic to a store, but that their ads played a deeper role in influencing consumers when they make a decision to buy a product.

A number of factors have made location-based marketing not only appealing, but necessary: the mainstream use of programmatic platforms to automate ad buying and selling in real-time has been fueled by the immediate availability of online consumer data based.

At first, the focus was on delivering ads based on tracking what websites people visit on their desktop. Over the years, as mobile usage eclipsed PC use by the most coveted consumers, advertisers are catching up.

In his view, proximity retargeting can be a powerful, not merely viable, mechanism to advance online advertising because it has reached important benchmarks in two areas: the technology and the volume/scale of the data available.

“A year ago, none of the proximity companies had the right amount of volume that was large enough to get advertisers’ attention,” Walle says. “The important aspect here is understanding the value of the data. Every time a new technology emerges, understanding how the data from it can be used is usually very hard. No one knows.

“We’ve advocated very heavily for using proximity data as the most accurate location data available to reach a consumer,” Walle continues. “Even though GPS and lat/long data are both great in their own way — for example, it’s great to know this person is in SoHo, Manhattan or another person’s in Quebec — proximity data is the only one that can tell if that person is actually in the store and for how long.”

The fact is, it took a few years until the advertising side understood that they’re actually the ones collecting so much significant place-based data. And it was only in the last two years that they realized “Maybe I should target my own physical customers when they’re online, now that I have this data thanks to companies like Gimbal, Tamoco, and Signal360.”

And in Walle’s view, that’s why this is the moment for proximity retargeting to take off.

The Mobile Retargeting Moment

Walle points to what he says are “two very clear trends” in the way mobile data is being used for marketing purposes.

Proximity data that’s collected in a store can either be used for retargeting to drive people back to the shop or to the e-commerce site. Given that mobile e-commerce sites are still less ideal for shopping and merchandise browsing, Walle believes the main value for these efforts is best focused on closing the loop between store visits and in-person purchases.

“If you do this on the desktop, it’s much easier to drive e-commerce consumers back to a site where the browsing for certain items is a bit easier to find,” Walle says. “With mobile, retargeting is best to drive someone back to the store, since they’re often on-the go.”

In the meantime, that is what Walle plans to continue communicating to brands and agencies still trying to see how location marketing tools and proximity fit into their scope.

In discussing what Unacast’s role will be, Walle says it will emphasize its integrations and relationships on the marketer and agency sides.

“Imagine if you’re a brand and you’re already spending millions of dollars in online advertising trying to reach your customers and you happen to deploy beacons,” he says. “Well, why shouldn’t you incorporate that value proximity data into your overall, existing marketing mix. It’s logical just from a more improved ROI standpoint. But someone needs to help their proximity partner to bring it to the online marketing world. And we do that by harmonizing that data and integrating it with the agencies, the trading desks, and the DSPs.”