Event apps and beacons: A match made in heaven

By Theodore Conroy, on


One of the hardest things to do at an event is truly integrate the physical and digital experiences. At IBM, we are always looking for the best ways to ensure digital drives a physical experience and does not detract from it. That’s where event apps come in. Today, I’ll talk a bit about how we use Bluetooth low energy beacons and IBM’s event mobile app to truly deliver on this lofty marketing speak.

First, a quick chat on beacons

For the uninitiated, beacons are small Bluetooth devices that can trigger a message, determine a relative location or become a radar of sorts to track any simple device as crude IoT. About the size of a guitar pick, they are easy to deploy, cost-efficient to manage and flexible in terms of implementation on native mobile apps. Though the hardware and software options are wide-ranging, popping the software development kits into event apps is a mostly simple process, followed by some coding to trigger what happens when the app encounters a beacon.

Interactive maps

One of the biggest questions IBM gets at information desks at major conferences is “Where is ___?” At our top-tier events, we’re asking attendees to navigate millions of square feet of meeting rooms, arenas and large corridors that lack orientation. Quite simply, getting around these venues is intimidating. So, rather than giving attendees directions to meeting room 101, we arm everyone with a digital tool that allows for self-sufficient navigation of a large space.

We embed digital maps into our event app that include all session rooms and areas of interest and then add a data layer that creates a rich, dynamic experience for attendees. All they have to do is tap on a room and they can see more about the venue, along with upcoming sessions and activities. It works in the inverse, too: when an attendee selects a session from the main schedule, it will display a small frame of the map location with a “Directions to Here” button.

That still leaves one outstanding piece of information that’s needed to help get a user to a room: the location and its relation to the map. As previously published blog posts have noted, the dense network conditions created by an indoor environment make it pretty much impossible to rely on GPS. Indoor Wi-Fi could be used, but those integrations tend to come in at a high cost.

This is where beacons come in. IBM drops as many as 800 beacons onsite and maps their location back to the map. Using that, we can determine an attendee’s location using Bluetooth signal pings and create directions from one place to another. We can even draw a line from Point A to Point B — I call it the “Yellow Brick Road.” In terms of utility, it has become a must-have at our largest events.

Location-based messaging and offers

Remember the optical-based advertisements in “Minority Report?” Imagine a world where you could be pinged with digital billboards based on who and where you are. IBM and other event providers are doing just that today by using beacons and attendee profile data to deliver targeted notifications to event apps.

It isn’t as creepy as it comes across. By default, our users are opted-out of location-based messages and have to flip two switches if they want to start receiving messages. This way, privacy is always in the hands of the user.

For those who choose to be a part of the feature, IBM delivers beacon push notifications based on time and location. So, when attendees enter the expo at 12:45 PM on Monday, they could be hit with a giveaway offer to the first 30 people who visit a particular booth. During the general session at 8:30 AM on Tuesday, those same attendees might receive a white paper on a new solution from IBM.

The key to encouraging users to keep their Bluetooth on is providing them with engaging, compelling content. There is no spam folder for beacons, so an unimpressed attendee will simply turn the feature off. This is where team collaboration and creativity become best practices. IBM solicits its entire conference staff to brainstorm offers, experiences and Easter eggs we can deliver by location. In theory, the result is an engaging, second-level experience with event content based on physical location.

In the future, IBM is planning to integrate attendee profile data to serve specific content depending on who the attendee is. For instance, if a developer and a C-level executive visit during that 12:45 PM expo, they could each receive different messages.

Attendee networking “Around Me”

Do you ever think to yourself, “Wow, this is quite a room,” and want to go network and shake hands but need a little more information on whom you’re meeting? IBM has helped jump-start these conversations using the “Around Me” feature of its event app.

In targeted networking zones, we find co-located individuals by seeing who is pinging the same beacons at the same time. All attendees who are opted-in and have Bluetooth on can see who is nearby through the “Around Me” section of the app, along with a little more information about that person and a photo, if one has been provided. The event app offers use of the LinkedIn API to fill out a complete professional profile, which eliminates data entry redundancy and maintains a professional feeling. This allows for a great introduction and can truly enhance face-to-face connections at an event.

Beacon technology is still in its nascent stage, and the industry is iterating rapidly and evolving its best practices. The key thing to remember is that there has to be an incentive for an event attendee to take the step to turn on Bluetooth. From there, the possibilities for content, data and insights are endless.

About The Author

Theodore Conroy

Digital Transformation Manager at IBM

Ted Conroy leads mobile strategy and execution for IBM global conferences. He has deployed mobile apps for Big Blue's largest events, including IBM InterConnect, IBM Amplify, and IBM World of Watson (formerly IBM Insight.) An avid triathlete and fitness enthusiast, Conroy found the intersection of mobile and human experience using the popular app Strava to train for events.

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