Imagine this: You’re going to the cinema. When you arrive your phone pings you a message inviting you to collect a free refreshment from a particular brand.
Later, once home, you go online, and the same brand offers you a free cinema ticket. When you return to the cinema you are welcomed with another ping, and can collect your ticket.
This simple-sounding scenario, currently being tested in Norway, connects online and offline data in ways that have not been previously achieved, according to the developers of the platform behind the trial. The free refreshment happens via targeted proximity communication based on precise physical location. Data from the the beacon interaction then delivers targeted ads online. When you go back to the cinema, that brand will be able to access return-to-store metrics. No physical retail environment has previously been able to do this, say the founders Unacast, the Norwegian startup looking to connect the online/offline dots.
Recent winner of Best Nordic Newcomer at the Nordic Startup Awards, Unacast's management team includes CEO Thomas Walle and COO Kjartan Slette, who were part of the team who created WiMP, later known as Tidal, and sold to Jay Z.
Making the invisible, visible
Currently, retailers and brands have a limited customer view, Slette says. "As soon as the customer leaves their store or venue, they become invisible until they return to the same location. What they did before and after the visit is unknown. Similarly, online customers are only visible when in digital domains, a mere 30% of their time awake. This restricts the effectiveness and potential of both offline and online communications."
Unacast, founded eight months ago and recent recipient of $1.6 million in seed funding, now operates, the founders say, the world’s largest network of proximity data. It has already signed up some of the biggest proximity service providers or PSPs, which own beacons and similar location-led technology. The company’s aim is to become "the backend of proximity" and has made considerable steps towards that goal.
Unacast manages the PSP network, harmonizing, standardizing and aggregating the data. This matters because at the moment, proximity data tends to exist in verticals, being gathered by, for example, retailers. There is no set industry standard or format and therefore is difficult to use data outside each specific vertical.
Alongside the network, Unacast operates a platform, which allows online retargeting based on offline behavior gathered from this network. Slette says Unacast is making proximity data useful by creating what is, in effect, the offline cookie, allowing a much fuller understanding of customers by knowing what they did before and after they arrived at a given location. He adds that for the user, their data suddenly delivers relevance and convenience in their daily life, and hopefully a decrease in the amount of spam adverts people get served.
No Shoes, And Soon, No Apps
Unacast officially began life in London in December 2014 and launched a new HQ in Oslo last week (fittingly, the progressive workspace, dubbed the "Unacastle," has no meeting rooms but instead, is kitted out with living rooms. Shoes are not allowed because: "You are home now," says Slette and staff have unlimited entitlement to holidays).
Currently an app is needed to communicate with beacons, which Slette says is not necessarily a bad thing as it demands a clear opt-in from the end user. However, rather than requiring people to download apps for every shop and venue they enter, which is clearly limiting, Unacast has the ability to integrate with apps people probably already have.
For example, at the Unacastle launch party, people who had the app for VG, a popular Norwegian tabloid newspaper with 830,000 unique weekly users, found that when they opened the app at the party the main ad was from Unacast, welcoming them. This hyper-local targeting via a national newspaper can also be followed by retargeting afterwards.
Slette adds that in the near future, the OS on smartphones will read proximity data directly, negating the need for any app. So all people need to do is opt in or opt out during initial set up.
The backend of everything
There has been so much hype around the imminent arrival of the Internet of Things, the idea that soon, everyday objects around us will be able to talk to each other and the Internet. But it is only really possible once they are all talking the same language. When all that data gets connected, the notion of the "Internet of Everything" can become a reality and it is Unacast’s ultimate intention to become "the backend of everything."
Slette looks forward to all locations being connected to each other and to all people. "The Internet of today is not limited by bandwidth or processing power, but by data sources. Today the sources are human in origin. Soon, the sources will be everything around you. Billions of data sources."
He lays out the following scenario: "This morning, your lavatory sent a urine sample to your doctor. It received a message back saying that you are in all probability pregnant. You are now being informed of the happy news via a private message on Facebook while at work. Meanwhile, your fridge has been notified to adjust your shopping lists to match a suggested diet for the next nine months. A drone is on its way to your house with the first delivery."
He adds: "Your fridge took the liberty of adding one extra item. Based on your DNA and previous purchases, it is estimated you will have an increased craving for dark chocolate in the near future."
He grins: "Because not everything is changing."