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30-second summary:

  • Smartphones are making possible new kinds of marketing experiences in restaurants, bars, stadiums and other real-world spaces.
  • These new experiences use the mobile devices to capture and post location-specific imagery that is then shared in the location and online, to broadcast content that expands on performances, or to share fan-based content that is created in sports venues, among other techniques.
  • Through such uses and others, smartphones — rapidly becoming turbo-charged with 5G — are turning into enablers of marketing experiences that do not otherwise exist.

Ads and customized content are often considered the extent of marketing to smartphone users. But, in recent years, there has been a boom in the use of smartphones for experiential marketing, where the mobile devices are used as controllers and targeted displays within physical locations, like bars, restaurants and stadiums.

The result is a dramatic enlargement of the marketing playing field, offering a preview of where smartphones – especially when they become further empowered by 5G transmission – are heading.

To get some sense of the emerging field of smartphone-enabled experiential marketing, we spoke with three vendors: UPshow, Appix and MVP Interactive.

UPshow in restaurants and bars

Chicago-based UPshow works with restaurants, bars, gyms, waiting rooms and other locations to engage patrons by connecting smartphones with the establishments’ TV screens.

Currently, CEO Adam Hirsen told ClickZ, his company services about 19,000 screens in about 7000 venues in the U.S., plus some locations in Canada, Latin America and Europe.

The restaurant or bar employs either an AOpen small computer box or an Asus Chromebit stick, both based on Google’s online-only Chrome OS. The AOpen is designed for industrial 24/7 use and multiple locations, while the Asus is intended for single locations with less robust requirements.

The AOpen sits near a TV or at an AV system, with a connection to the HDMI input on either. The Asus device, the size of a candy bar, plugs into the USB port on a TV.

With either of these devices, the establishment can show on its TVs such custom programming as Twitch-broadcast gaming, custom marketing videos, moving or static custom graphics, and animation, plus photos or videos that have been captured and uploaded by patrons via smartphones to a social network account.

UPshow provides the establishment with tools for the creation of the custom graphics or animation, and the UPshow team and the establishment can select every social media post that is displayed.

Show your sauce

In one typical engagement, UPshow has worked with the Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant franchise, encouraging customers to share selfies via social media that show how much sauce they were covered in after eating the wings. Selected photos were then shown on in-house TVs.

The TVs can also present an interactive trivia game. It allows patrons to participate by scanning a QR code shown on the TV, which leads to a mobile web site, or customers can enter the URL directly.

Seated patrons can scan the QR code by zooming in through their phone’s lens, and the QR code can also be used to offer discounts.

smartphones game

A trivia game screen from UPshow

Customer loyalty programs in particular benefit from this kind of customer involvement, Hirsen said, adding that his company’s stats show 80 percent of consumers are more likely to engage with a brand when they utilize their phones in these ways inside an establishment.

Appix in stadiums

Appix, based in Vancouver, takes the smartphone-in-venue approach to the next level: stadiums.

The company essentially “broadcasts” images, animation and video to everyone’s cell phone in large venues. One example: Disney’s CoCo Live event last November in Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl featured the company’s service.

smartphones performance

An Appix-enhanced musical performance, based on the Coco animated film

That mostly music event, based on the animated film “Coco,” featured a full orchestra on stage, vocalists and several costumed characters. Attendees were asked to download Appix’ smartphone app, which requires no signup and, Appix CEO James Brett told ClickZ, doesn’t capture any user data.

The service, which is essentially employing the audiences smartphones as a massive array of handheld screens, is intended to amplify a show’s content and feel.

At key moments in the performance, he said, the platform sends out to everyone at the same time the same exclusive still images, text and messaging, such as images of the characters on stage. Content can also be distributed randomly.

We “literally heard oohs and ahhs,” Brett said.

Twinkle smartphones’ flashlights

The app can also be triggered to twinkle smartphones’ flashlights, so the venue becomes a programmable, coordinated light show delivered by every smartphone running the app. The system can also be used to signal when intermission is over.

The platform cannot currently broadcast video or audio, as the custom transmission doesn’t actually connect continuously, but instead sends small bursts.

Appix employs a patent-pending version of Bluetooth transmission protocol, but, unlike Bluetooth, device pairing is not required.

A backup electrical system is available if power is lost. Coupled with the fact that neither WiFi nor cellular systems are utilized, this means that the platform also works for emergency crowd notifications – even if the cell phone system is jammed and power is down.

While not primarily designed for two-way interaction, Brett said a client who wants feedback via WiFi can be accommodated.

‘New kind of musical experience’

He pointed to a Summer 2019 concert with the reconstituted “New Kids on the Block” musical group, an event that founding member Donnie Wahlberg described as a “new kind of musical experience,” in Brett’s words.

That performance included such show enhancements as broadcasting hearts during a love song.

Another vendor — Philadelphia-based MVP Interactive — specializes in providing interactive kiosks in malls, stadiums and other large spaces.

One stadium-mounted kiosk, for instance, lets attendees pose with baseball player David Ortiz, aka The Big Papi. The resulting image can then be sent to a user’s phone for sharing.

Similarly, MVP kiosks can photograph a fan and turn the image into a digital, bouncing bobblehead, or generate a virtual baseball player card which can be similarly shared via email. MVP CEO James Giglio told ClickZ that, typically, about 300 fans utilize a stadium-located kiosk during a ballgame.

The next phase of smartphones

These three companies are creating an outline of where smartphones can go next as a tool and as a destination for marketing.

Instead of simply being a web-browsing or app-using device in your pocket, mobile devices are carving out new kinds of experiences.

In those experiences, consumers interact with trivia games on a restaurant’s TV on the wall, generate location-specific imagery that share their venue experiences, amplify large-scale performances with related pocket-sized imagery and text, or create shared images that connect fans to sports heroes.

When 5G fully arrives, those experiences will become turbo-charged, enabling 4K streaming video and massive collaborative spaces.

Ironically, when cell phones first emerged in the 1990s, many people wondered if consumers would retreat into their personal equivalent of phone booths.

But the next phase of smartphones indicates that, instead, these mobile devices are allowing consumers to expand their interactions with environments and neighbors.

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