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Unacast And Becoming A Backend For Beacons

Beacons are about to be the next big thing – if the Internet is to be believed. Google “beacons are coming” and there are 11 articles from separate sources that use that phrase. Whose beacons? Which type? Using what tech? What use can merchants best put them to?

Those are the questions still looking for answers – but Norwegian startup Unacast is working diligently to solve that last problem in a way that doesn’t depend on any specific answers to the first few.

Simply stated – Unacast wants to be the backend for the beacons –  or more accurately proximity technologies in general.

“Proximity is not only beacons, although beacons are the flavor of the day. Wi-Fi, GPS, NFC, The Physical Web and Beacons, and the list goes on,” Kjartan Slette, Unacast’s COO and co-founder noted on Unacast’s blog.“The important word is ‘proximity,’ and proximity done right will forever change the future of physical retail and online.”

But doing it right is often easier said than done – particularly when vendors are all using different and esoteric forms of proximity base technology – meaning that while retailers can access their consumers in store, once a customer has moved out of range, the technology’s usefulness hit a barrier.

“As soon as the customer leaves [a store or venue with a beacon], he or she becomes invisible, until they resurface in the same location. What the customer did before and after the visit is unknown,” Slette wrote.

And that unknown zone is the problem that Unacast aims to solve – as the seven-month-old firm wants to be the backend network that connects the dots between different proximity schemes in store to draw a more detailed picture of a customer’s entire shopping trip through its recently launched PROX network.

PROX represents an agreement between Unacast and receives proximity data from about 10 proximity firms including Spark Compass and Mobstac in the U.S.

CEO and co-founder Thomas Walle Jensen noted, however, that while this is a good start, there are over 200 PSPs worldwide, and until those systems interact and yield meaningfully broad information about consumer behaviors, the technology just isn’t being leveraged with maximum effect.

“We believe that the next phase of the proximity revolution will revolve around understanding and utilizing the data and knowledge from consumers’ interactions with these beacons,” Jensen said in an interview. “You could call it offline cookies, and brands and retailers will soon require their proximity solution providers (PSP) to offer ways to utilize this knowledge, either in analytics, CRM, product development or online advertising.”

So how does Unacast provide the network for PSPs?

Once a retailer has installed a beacon (or other proximity scheme), the PSP providing the technology (with the store’s permission) gives Unacast access to both the device and marketing transmissions that flow from it. Unacast also includes a platform that generates user anonymous user profiles with data yielding from proximity tech to build out better targeted marketing – for example a University of Mississippi student was offered a pizza coupon because his profile indicated that he has been subsisting on a pizza-based diet for about a month.

And while the opportunities for retailers and marketers are clear – the question seems to remain: Will customers actually like this?

“There always will be a certain number of people who find that creepy,” Jensen acknowledged. “But if the ads are more tailored and let me have a better experience, people are actually fairly likely to opt in. People want their privacy protected and they surely don’t want to feel like they are being spammed by proximity technology. But if you are willing to give the customer something for making their data available, the customer will be receptive to sharing.”

Jensen further noted that Unacast has worked with Norweigan privacy regulators (among Europe’s toughest, he notes) to ensure users have the ability to opt out of tracking when they download a store app employed by beacons or other sensors.

The point, Jensen said, is to make the beacons a useful part of the shopping experience for all involved in a way that is transparent in the best way to help proximity tech make it out of what is proving to be a long infancy. Because, for all of its potential, Unacast sees proximity-sensing as a market that’s fragmented but starting to become a booming one, with the next fews year primed to produce 100 million beacons being built worldwide for 85 percent of the top retailers.

“The full potential of proximity is not something any one of us can fully grasp yet, it is simply too early, but at Unacast we are convinced that the network will be the catalyst of this potential,” Jensen noted.

Unacast is, of course, not the only business in town trying to tap into this booming market –  named players like Adobe have also taken to pointing out that their Marketing Cloud is optimized for targeting customers via beacon IDs and for incorporating the resulting location history into its user profiles. But, Jensen points out, unlike Adobe and their competitors, Unacast isn’t restricting itself to a certain set of retail partners or channels.

“Since we’re agnostic, we can have a wider reach,” Jensen noted, adding “collecting data is simple, but knowing what to collect and how to use it later is the tricky part.

In the end Unacast has a simple – if massive goal. It wants to be the builder of the killer API for proximity.
And, in seven months, Unacast has captured some funding to make that goal a reality. Unacast announced earlier this week it has snagged $1.6 million in seed funding in a round with participation from Trolltech founders Haavard Nord and Eirik Chambe-Eng, New Mark Invest, Ice Leopard Invest, and Blystad Invest.

The new money will be used to grow and scale the firm’s PROX and media networks.

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