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Microfencing Across the Universe

Frazetta John Carter


By Jeffrey Henning 

The first time I heard the term microfencing I pictured a miniature John Carter sword fighting aliens on the moons of Mars.

A sign of a misspent youth reading sword-and-planet stories.

For microfencing is actually just a more precise form of geofencing. In geofencing, you set an alert in an app that a customer or panelist has downloaded to notify you whenever the user is within specific GPS coordinates. Those GPS coordinates might be every Wal-Mart in the country, every Starbucks in a state, or a specific Dunkin’ Donuts in Des Moines. You can pop up a coupon or a survey when a user enters or exits the geofence, or you can just log their presence for action later. For instance, ResearchNow shared a great case study about passively logging visits to automotive dealers to update their profile data on which panelists were potentially shopping for cars.

Where geofencing breaks down is the precision of location it registers. Typically, geofencing is accurate within plus or minus 50 feet at a 95% confidence level. But geofencing has no idea which floor you are on in a mall—if it even works through all the concrete. If it does work, are you in The Gap, Radio Shack, or the food court, each one floor above the other?

Enter microfencing. Where a GPS sensor is listening to GPS satellites in orbit, and triangulating its position, a microfencing sensor detects emitters than an organization has strategically placed around a facility. Those emitters can be placed at the gates and concession stands of a stadium. Or the different cafeterias in an office building. Or the endcaps of the aisles at a retailer.

Apple’s iBeacon standard is the most widespread microfencing system. Macy’s, Target, MLB, Old Navy, JC Penney, BestBuy, and Crate & Barrel have all installed iBeacon transmitters in stores – Apple, of course, has rolled it out throughout all U.S. retail outlets.

At the Marketing Research Association’s Insights & Strategy Conference earlier this year, Sriram Subramanian (@sriram_s) of ZoomRX gushed about the potential of iBeacon for Mobile Research. “iBeacon is very specific, very context aware, very location aware. The possibilities are very intriguing. You can buy and plaster iBeacon transmitters throughout your stores or stadiums. Every smartphone is potential receiver. Retail is excited for opportunities for pushing coupons, for ‘in the moment’ discounting: they want to be able to push you coupon for 10% off shoes when you are right in that aisle.”

The big barrier to entry is getting apps onto consumers’ smartphones to detect the iBeacon signals. So far the best bets have been through loyalty apps and panelist apps. One use case that seems ripe is events management, given the popularity of conference apps that provide the updated agenda and downloadable presentations. Event managers would be able to passively track attendance at specific sessions and monitor attendees’ locations in real time.

How new are geofencing and microfencing? New enough that only a few respondents mentioned them in the open-ended comments of the most recent GRIT report.

For more on the potential of microfencing across the market-research universe, join me for an upcoming webinar. Will microfencing usher in a new wave of mobile market research, or will it be as big a bomb at the box office as John Carter? Only time will tell.

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