Facebook letting more stores ping your phone when you're inside

Facebook's Place Tips feature highlights relevant information about businesses in News Feed

Facebook's Bluetooth beacons ping users' phones when they're inside participating businesses, to give them information around the business.

Facebook's Bluetooth beacons ping users' phones when they're inside participating businesses, to give them information around the business.

You might find yourself browsing more than the shelves at your local store, if Facebook knows you're there. It's expanding a location-aware program that will let businesses pop information into the top of your news feed.

Place Tips lets brick-and-mortar stores send information to people's News Feeds, by sensing where customers are through Bluetooth beacons. Facebook began piloting the program earlier this year among just a handful of businesses in New York; now the social network is opening it to small and midsize businesses across the U.S.

The program publishes content from the business's Facebook page, and posts from users' friends about the business, to the top of people's News Feeds while they're at the company's location. The goal is to give customers more information about the place, or see what their friends think of it, while giving the business increased prominence in the popular app.

The Place Tips link at the top of your News Feed might read, "See photos and posts by your friends at Veselka." Tap on it, and you'll be led into a special feed of content related to the place.

The beacons used are diamond shaped devices about six centimeters wide that businesses can stick on a wall.

Tapping on the business's Place Tips won't post on Facebook or show other users where the person is, Facebook says.

For the content to appear on users' phones, they must be sharing their location information with Facebook, with Bluetooth turned on, and have Place Tips enabled in their Facebook settings. Currently, the content only appears in Facebook's iPhone app.

The feature also works at landmarks like New York's Central Park and Times Square, without needing beacons, where Facebook users' location can be determined using cellular networks, Wi-Fi and GPS.

By expanding the program, Facebook could help small businesses get more people talking about them and help them promote retail items or events, when content from their Pages might otherwise get lost in the feed. It might also be a way for Facebook to turn some of those businesses into paying advertisers.

Some participating businesses, however, aren't entirely sure how well the program works for them.

Veselka, a restaurant serving Ukrainian food in the East Village of New York, has been using a Facebook beacon since last February. For them, the feature displays, among other content, a questionnaire seeking feedback from customers.

Facebook told the restaurant they would receive data on the level of engagement customers have had with the content, but they haven't received anything yet, said Jason Birchard, a manager there. The restaurant does not know how often people see the Place Tips content, he said.

Not knowing whether the program had actually led to increased business, "is kind of the pitfall of this," he said.

Strand Book Store, which specializes in rare and out-of-print books, has used a Facebook beacon to highlight their Page content and show upcoming in-store events. After installing the beacon, attendance at their events has risen, and they've received more Facebook check-ins and "likes," said Brianne Sperber, marketing manager at the store.

Still, because they don't yet have data about user activity within the feature, "We can't say that this is certainly because of Place Tips, but we believe there is a correlation," she said.

Facebook says the beacons send a one-way signal to users' Facebook apps, and that they don't collect information from people or change the location information Facebook already receives.

When Facebook employees were helping Birchard set up the beacon at Veselka, they were concerned that people might think "big brother" was watching, he said. "That's the last thing they want. They want to make this something useful for Facebook users."

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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