Q&A with Sonic Notify Co-Founder Alex Bell


Esteban Contreras: Sonic Notify's technology seeks to transform how people interact with brands in physical locations. Tell me about how your CMS, audio and beacon technologies are enabling this transformation.

Alex Bell:  Exactly, Sonic Notify wants to connect people to locations, and over the last 3 years, we have created all the pieces that are required to really connect a person to a location.

First, there is the transmission, telling the smartphone “You are Here;” our transmission methods include our patented inaudible audio as well as our dual mode bluetooth low energy, both of which are found within our beacons. Our audio signal is unique because it means the user can have bluetooth turned off, which is the 'achilles heel' for virtually all other BLE-only solutions.

Secondly, there is the CMS / Server which is responsible for the serving, turning “You are Here” into “You are in front of the popcorn concessions stand at the Oracle Arena.”

And lastly, the middle man, which is our Software Development Kit (SDK) - this handles security decryption in the beacons, caches content for offline displaying, shows content and tracks analytics.
 

EC: Sonic Notify has being compared to different companies ranging from Shopkick and Shazam, to Euclid and Estimote. How have you evolved over the past two years and what sets you apart from others in the space?

AB:  Sonic Notify definitely occupies a similar space with each of the companies mentioned, yet we all provide something different. Two of these companies, Shopkick and Shazam, are consumer facing brands, and Euclid focuses more on analytics. The reason we have 'Notify' in our name is because we believe in giving enterprises the ability to build apps and locations which Notify their consumers in a targeted and non-intrusive way. We truly believe that when done right, leveraging both our experience and technology, proximity marketing can provide a net positive for the consumer, the enterprise, the retailer, and the brand.

Sonic Notify is a partner providing smart solutions to companies looking to improve their consumer engagement at various location. We see ourselves apart from the crowd in that we view analytics as supporting the overall mission of notification driven engagements.
 

EC: Now that Apple has created a bit of a groundswell with the launch of iBeacon, how has the market changed and how are brands rethinking the bridge between online and offline?

AB:  When iBeacon was released, I received massive amounts of emails from friends asking if Sonic Notify had been sherlocked. We had been shipping beacons for over a year at that point, and suddenly it seemed as if we were going up against Apple! Thankfully, as we dug deeper, we found iBeacon to be just a series of API calls to facilitate bluetooth calls as they relate to app states. So for us, it was instant credit and affirmation from Apple that we were definitely on the right track; kind of humbling!

As for the market, it is undeniably taking flight, and we have an increasing number of large corporations in our pipeline, now more than ever before. In terms of press coverage, we’re really excited about the coming months, as our clients, mostly large industry brands, are experimenting with the best possible ways of using the technology. We firmly believe the initial results will reaffirm and solidify the belief that proximity-based messaging through apps, and within context, is a great value-add for both consumers and companies.
 

EC: The "beacon" seems to get a lot of buzz these days, but ultimately these are just sensors that facilitate context. Do you think the beacon itself has become a distraction or is it good that sensors of all kinds are getting more attention?

AB:  It's all about marketing. iBeacon isn’t even a physical device, it’s only an API call, but when Apple puts its spin on things, suddenly they take on a whole new meaning. So overall, I think it’s incredibly positive. Granted, our first call with new prospects usually starts with basic facts, and providing pragmatic insights about the differences between iBeacon marketing reality and fantasy, but the excitement is there! Sonic Notify can ride the wave, and really focus on client roadmaps and development schedules to meet their success criteria. Good job Apple!
 

EC: To be a winning enterprise-grade solution, you need a scalable platform that covers both breadth and depth. You also need to be robust enough for the biggest retailers and consumers across all mobile platforms. Tell me about how you're doing this today and what keeps you up at night.

AB:  Infrastructure wise, as soon as you start real deployments, like we did with Rouse Malls - hundreds of beacons - and Golden State Warriors, with 20 thousand fans at each game, you have to build scalable infrastructure. For our engineering team, this is nothing new. We all come from different backgrounds like Adobe, Double Click, etc., so our team really understands enterprise scaling and support. Our infrastructure is also uncommonly mature, built with J2EE on purely AWS products.

What really keeps me up at night is the product roadmap: we’re constantly having to walk a fine line between competing use cases and requirements. There are so many varied use cases for this technology that we have to be mindful about our development queues matching market realities, and at the same time stay broad enough to provide our solutions to the clients we’re targeting.
 

EC: Brands in retail, TV and live events are the core players you seem to target. What have you learned from your clients and partners?

AB:  Each vertical is focusing on different aspects of what the technology can deliver. For live events, most of the activations are experiential, like showing light shows or focusing on improving the fan experience.

In retail, the two important things are better shopping experience for consumers, and increasing basket size. Our activations tend to focus on items like Endless Aisle, in which a user who is in front of a shelf for X seconds, is presented with some of the other colors and/or flavors of items which are in the stockroom, but not currently on the shelf for instance. The use cases are extremely varied for retailers, yet they all revolve around the consumer and the different, unique ways of improving their experience.

TV is a different animal and one without consistent needs. When Sonic Notify cracks all three, which we are on our way to doing, we will be able to provide that single channel to reach consumers in all three verticals.
 

EC: The promise of SoLoMo has sometimes disappointed brands and marketers, but these technologies are maturing and creating personalization opportunities we've been talking about for over a decade. What are the key factors that need to be in place in order to create an ecosystem that lets brands do more, while keeping consumer privacy concerns in check?

AB:  This is exactly where we see the future of proximity marketing: our CMS offers the ability to have one beacon broadcast a different message to multiple consumers, all based on unique user-loyalty data. This decisioning ability gives our clients the ability to tailor their digital content to match each use case, and that is the future of proximity marketing. This does require connections with retailers’ loyalty data, and with third party sources; we’re currently working on a few of these integrations now, and are constantly learning, and improving as we progress.

Privacy will always be a concern in the industry, and for us it starts and ends with opt-in. Each OS, Apple and Android have some layer of opt-in for the technology, but we require our clients go further and we have a policy that recommends a layer of opt-in for install and constant op-out for session and message. So that the user always has the ability to choose.
 

EC: What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs looking to launch companies with emerging technologies?

AB:  Success is about perseverance! Three years may seem like a lot for a startup, but it’s nothing really. If you are an entrepreneur, you have to be ready for a string of setbacks and difficulties, and it never becomes easy. When I founded the company, I was finishing an Electrical Engineering degree at Columbia University, and was interested in using passive apps to track New York City subways. The idea was that you would use mobile devices to passively ping back to the server when it lost or found internet connectivity, basically attaching to cell towers. From this data, the server would be able to process and determine the location of subways. The company came from this little project to help New Yorkers. When we started the company, we decided that we would instead focus on delivering proximity-based messaging within a location, and that hasn’t changed. As long as you are willing to remain focused on your vision and believe in it, you will always find the success.


Learn more about Sonic Notify at www.sonicnotify.com.

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