The biggest problem for the retail industry is that information about the customer is usually available only after a purchase is made and the customer is leaving the store. Even in the best case scenario, the customer is only asked if they were satisfied with their previous purchase. Information about the past that can give us clues about the future but it won’t help us in the present.

Great service can only be achieved when the sales person can identify a customer’s preferences and meet their need at a specific place and time.

Typically, a customer will not volunteer information about what they are looking for or they will not remember or specifically know what they’re after. This means that the seller cannot add this meaningful layer to the purchase experience that would take it above the norm.

When shopping online the customer can be profiled according to their online behaviour and the purchase experience can be changed accordingly. In the beginning this method of personalization was considered intrusive but has since changed into a requirement from customers who have acknowledged its benefits and it is now moving from online shopping into the real world.

Contextual communications have changed the game completely. At the recent Nordic Travel Fair visitors could benefit from a mobile app spiced with iBeacon technology which enables contextual interactions.

With the app that recognised the location and movements of the visitors, exhibitors and the fair organizers could send out offers, coupons and notifications to smartphones.

All in all, nearly 10 000 new digital and measurable customer contacts were made during the fair, all including the added layer of being in the right place at the right time, in a specific location or situation. Some of the notifications sent by the app were able to produce the desired reaction in the recipient with a conversion rate of 60%.

When discussing the possibilities of contextual interactions I have frequently encountered three main issues and reservations that people have about this communication channel. These questions can now be answered with the experience of the travel fair with its 70 000 visitors behind us.

1. Are people using the right devices for this to work?
Yes. Nearly 79 % of the people who downloaded the app, have a device that supports iBeacon technology.

2. Is anyone downloading these apps?
Yes. Within a week the app for the Nordic Travel Fair was one of the most popular apps in the App Store during the fair. It was placed top 19 overall and was the most popular app in the travel category.

3. Are the customers ready for this?
Without trying to be repetitive, the answer to this question could also be yes. 21 % of the people who downloaded the app and had the right technology for it, used one or more notifications or other messages that were sent. This number can be increased with improved usage instructions and check-ups and by automatizing certain features. Still, this is not a bad figure considering this was the first time such an app was used at the fair.

This figure is also in line with comparisons made in the US market. Different sources suggest that 25-50 % of all US smart phone users have their Bluetooth connections activated The active us of Bluetooth connections is estimated to increase when other Bluetooth devices such as speakers, heart rate monitors and smart watches become even more common.

These are encouraging figures for companies that are considering the next steps of mobile strategies and the use of contextual communications.

Context is the new media

Practically all companies now have the opportunity to recognize loyal customers, increase the average purchase with digital coupons and activate additional sales by personalized mobile communications.

The messages and notifications that are sent contextually, play a vital role in this new media, their importance cannot be exaggerated. They must be personal, on point and truly action oriented starting from the app level up.

This means that the underlying business aims and challenges that we are hoping to solve with contextual messaging, must be analysed and identified before a contextual concept is built to solve them.

Just transferring offers online is not the same thing as developing the customer relationship through service communications and a new kind of loyal customer programme.

The means to identify and research customer behaviour towards our company that we are used to online are moving into the real world, into the actual physical shop. From now on, when I walk into a shop, the sales person knows which of their products I might have reviewed online, what my size is and which kind of style I prefer.

Or if I’m on my way to a rock concert, the local pharmacy can remind me to drop by and buy a pair of ear plugs. Customers are starting to have an active role in how they want to define their interactions with our brand.

With their personalization choices they can tell us their preferences without us having to passively wait for them to make a purchase decision and for us to get the analysis of this big data action after the fact.

We’re facing the moment of truth for mobile apps. They will either become an integral part of everyday life for their users or they will remain easily forgotten gimmicks that are only used when we’re freeing up space on our telephone for more important things.

These means are the first steps towards smart customer contacts.