MLB's iBeacon Technology is A Marketing Home Run

Christine Birkner
Marketing News
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Key Takeaways
​WHAT: Major League Baseball has been using iBeacons since the start of the 2014 baseball season to engage fans and enhance ballpark experiences.

SO WHAT: iBeacons use geofencing technology to track fans who download the MLB app and send relevant messages and offers to their iPhones based on their location at a ballpark.

NOW WHAT: Consider using iBeacons in your apps to help you connect with your customers.  
Nov. 18, 2015​

Baseball fans across the country were enthralled back in October when the Kansas City Royals made a thrilling playoff run to win their first World Series championship in 30 years (except, of course, for fans of the New York Mets, who the Royals defeated in the World Series in five games). Spring training is still a few months away, but Major League Baseball’s mobile marketing tools promise to keep fans just as engaged throughout the 2016 season. 

Over the past few years, retailers have been experimenting with Apple iBeacons, which use geofencing technology to track customers and send relevant messages and offers to their iPhones based on their location within a store. MLB has been using iBeacons since the start of the 2014 baseball season to engage fans and enhance their experience at ballparks. Users who download and access the MLB.com Ballpark app can opt in to be tracked by iBeacons at 28 MLB ballparks. When fans pass by an iBeacon, it senses their location and delivers coupons for stadium food or apparel, team information and video highlights to their iPhone.
 
Adam Ritter, senior vice president of wireless for New York-based MLB Advanced Media, the league’s digital experience arm, spoke with Marketing News about how MLB developed its iBeacon program and how it’s leveraging the resulting data. 

Q: What is MLB’s role in promoting iBeacons? Is it a team-by-team decision on how they’re promoted?

A: We don’t dictate to the teams on how to promote them. When we did the trial run in September 2013, our hope was that we could pilot this in a few clubs for the 2014 season but, as things would have it, the word got out about the demo, and we had 28 teams who said, ‘We’d love to have this by opening day [2014].’ Our pilot idea went out the door, and we actually did a commercial launch with 28 ball clubs on opening day.

Q: How does the technology work, and how does MLB work with the teams to implement it? 

A: The iBeacon technology really solved a problem for us. The Ballpark app, since its inception four years ago, had a feature called “check in,” where fans went to the ballpark, we set up geofences, and they had to open up the app and hit the green button that said “check in.” As a result of checking in, you saw a profile that showed how many times you checked in to the ballpark, or a special offer that the club was making to all of the fans that night. The problem we had with that was that you had to check in physically. The iBeacons give us the ability, as the fan gets through the gate, to have it be a completely automatic process. Fans can look down at their phone and get a notification to pick up a free hat or T-shirt, or whatever the offer might be. We work with the clubs to place beacons strategically around the gates of their ballparks to have an optimal check-in feature. 

Q: Any iBeacon success stories so far?

A: The number of check-ins has increased exponentially, in the triple digits, from 2014 to 2015. Across the board, it helps provide a personalized experience for fans. Fans checking in to [New York Mets’] Citi Field might reward their fans one way, and fans checking in to [San Francisco Giants’] AT&T Park might get other incentives. We’re here to facilitate the clubs with this technology so they can create an experience that’s unique to them. We want them to put their own flavor on it. Last year at the All-Star Game in Minneapolis, we installed our “points of interest” beacon. Ballparks are rich in history, and they have monuments and trophies and plaques and jerseys. When we walk around ballparks, we don’t know what these things are until we go up to the little plaque and read it. In Minneapolis, we placed beacons around these points of interest, so when fans got in proximity of these areas, they got a notification where they could read more about it or play a video. It’s an interesting opportunity to showcase the individuality and the features of the ballpark, and we’ve done three or four points of interest at a variety of ballparks.

Q: What insights are you gathering from this effort, and how are you leveraging that data?

A: We’re very protective of the data. It’s potentially sensitive information; it’s private information. The opportunity is not how we use the data to target fans, it’s more about providing a custom experience. Clubs will want to offer different things to fans based on something like the 100th fan who walked into the ballpark that night. We’re sensitive about protecting that data and not making it available outside the scope of what we’re trying to do, which is to provide a unique experience to fans. The data is available to us for customer service use. It’s a good eye to what’s going on in the ballpark. We’re sensitive, also, to over-beaconing people. We don’t want the experience to get so out of hand that every time you turn a corner in a ballpark, you get a notification on your phone. Fans will turn off the feature then, and that’ll ruin it for everybody. We show fans a screen when they download the app that tells them what we’re doing and gives them the option to not participate. We’re up front, and fans have rewarded us with participation. 

Q: How else has the iBeacon technology helped to drive fan engagement? 

A: We have 30 teams and 30 different personalities, and we have one app. Whenever possible, we’re looking for opportunities to customize that experience for the fan base, and this gives us that opportunity. At any ballpark, the clubs themselves control the offers that are being made to fans. Navigation is customizable by the club, and so are sponsorship tie-ins. We really try to make the clubs feel that this is their app. The Red Sox page is reflecting the Red Sox. A lot of teams are really promoting it at their parks, on the outfield fences, on turnstiles. They call it ‘The Official App of Citi Field,’ or ‘The Official App of AT&T Park.’ They can add information on giveaways that fans love, [for example], if you’re at a ballpark and are wondering which night is “bobble head night.” We’re also looking at other ways we can introduce new beacon technologies that enhance the experience and don’t detract from it. We’d like to pilot some new features and functionality later this season. We want fans to have an ‘Aha, that’s really cool’ moment versus, ‘Where are these messages coming from? I’m shutting my phone off.’ … Beacons helped us solve a problem: how to customize the fan experience and automate the app. We think of the beacons as a great utility to enhance the experience and give the clubs the opportunity to create a more customizable experience for the fans. We’re thinking from a fan and club perspective about what will make the experience at the ballpark even better.  

This article was originally published in the December 2015 issue of Marketing News​



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Christine Birkner
Christine Birkner is the features editor for Marketing News. E-mail her at cbirkner@ama.org and follow her on Twitter @ChristineBirkne.
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