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Making mobile apps smarter with geofence technology

Making mobile apps smarter with geofence technology

Smart notifications and suggestions are what people are expecting from smart digital assistants like Siri and Google Now, but some of these capabilities are also possible for regular apps with the use of location aware technology. By combining user information with location aware technology, it is possible to create a personal experience when the user is in a certain location. The result is a smarter app which delivers relevant content and services to the user, creating a positive view of the brand and app.

This article will discuss some of the available location aware technologies and make the case for geofence technology for smarter apps. In addition, the best practices in regards to geofence and the opportunities to apply this technology in retail, hospitality, and airline apps will also be discussed


There are various location aware technologies for the smartphone that can be used to determine the user’s location. One of the better known technologies is Apple’s iBeacons, or simply Beacons, which uses Bluetooth to transmit a signal to a smartphone. Due to its high accuracy in determining the smartphone’s location, there have been many experiments to install Beacons in stores to track the user and provide relevant information where appropriate. The beacons are capable to measure at a micro-level when a user is near a certain product or object. However, as this technology depends on Bluetooth, which most users turn off, and requires investments in hardware (i.e. Beacons), it is an expensive option for companies since it targets only a small fraction of the user base.  

Another technology which is becoming more familiar in people’s everyday lives is NFC, near field communication. This technology is currently being integrated within our payment cards and smartphones and can be used to transfer data when the NFC enabled objects are in very close proximity (few centimetres) of each other.

Many use cases can be considered, especially with Android’s newly announced Instant Apps, which can launch an app without the need to install the app on the smartphone.

This can for example be used to launch an instant payment app when the phone is held near a NFC enabled object such as a parking metre. Enabling NFC in an app presumes the user is already intending to take an action with the app and will not make the app smarter.

Where NFC and Beacons are perfectly capable of tracking the user’s micro-location, it will only work for an app when the user is in the micro-location e.g. in a retail store. There is an alternative technology which works without additional hardware investments and is able to understand the user’s location at a macro-level e.g. in the vicinity of a retail store. This technology is called geofencing and relies on the user’s smartphone geolocation to determine whether a user is in a specific area. By understanding the user’s location on a macro-level, apps can send relevant information to the user related to the user’s context.  

Recently, I received this smart notification from TripAdvisor while visiting the Botanical Garden in Amsterdam. I did not use the app to search for this location nor did I have the app open. With the use of geofence technology, TripAdvisor knew my location and was able to send this smart notification.

Geofence technology, how does it work?

To understand geofencing, it is first important to understand what geolocation is and how smartphones determine their geolocation. In the context of smartphones, the geolocation is the geographic location of a smartphone. This location data can be used in apps to understand the location of the user and provide services based on this information. Common examples are nearest store-, hotel- or restaurant finder, or sorting information based on the distance of the user to the location.

The geolocation of a smartphone is based on various measurement methods. Most commonly, the smartphone’s location is determined by a combination of GPS, cell tower- and Wi-Fi data. On both Android and iOS, these services are built into the operating system. Users can opt out of the location tracking services by changing the app or operating system settings or decide to switch off GPS, Cellular and/or Wi-Fi data. With the rise of personal assistants such as Google Now and Siri, which uses the GPS for geolocation based recommendations and services, the GPS is often turned on by users.   

To understand geofencing, imagine a virtual perimeter around a geographic location with a radius of X meters. The border of this circle is what we refer to as a geofence. To state it more simply, a geofence is a radius around a point location.

Both Android and iOS have developed technology to track the user’s geolocation. When the user enters or exits the geofence, the operating system can trigger the app to perform an event in the background. This event is most commonly used to send a notification to the user but can also be used to process some relevant date. The triggering of the app by the operating system can even be done when the phone is locked and when the app is not opened.

The geofences that the operating system will use to trigger the app can be different per user. On Android, there is a maximum of 100 geofences and on iOS, there is maximum of 20 geofences which will be used to track the user and trigger the app. The limited amount of geofences that can be stored on the smartphone make it important to understand which locations and related geofences are relevant for the individual user. With well-designed interfaces, the app can ask the user to provide their favorite locations or the app can use sources such as loyalty data and other user provided information to determine the relevant geofences for the user.

What is unique about this technology is that the operating system (i.e Android or iOS) will trigger the app in the background when the user hits a geofence, it does not require the user to have the phone active or to have the particular app open. As the tracking is done by the operating system, the geofence technology allows the app to target an individual user based on their location instead of targeting a large group of users. By combining the location with other user information, the context of the user becomes clearer and the message that is send to the user can be personalised.

Best practices for implementing geofencing

To successfully implement geofencing technology in an app, the following practices should be considered to ensure a good experience for the app user.

Determine the relevant locations for the user

Selecting the locations that are of interest to the individual user is important to ensure relevance when a notification is triggered based on the location. User data can play an important role in selecting relevant locations. Relevant data can be based on whether the user has been at this location before, loyalty card transaction history, or whether the user has at some point purchased a ticket which is related to a location. This information can be used to decide which geofences to store on the smartphone.  

If user information is missing or only provides a few relevant locations, the user can be asked to provide locations which are relevant to them. By explaining what the benefits are and providing an easy method to select locations, the user can be prompted to provide this information.


Control the geofence radius

To control the geofencing technology, the radius of each geofence can be tweaked to improve relevancy. If the radius of the geofence is too wide for a specific location (e.g. radius of 5km in a urban area), then the risk of unwanted events is more likely to occur if the user lives in the area or has to commute through it daily. On the other hand, a large geofence could be useful for larger areas such as airports or rural areas.

In addition, it is also possible to set a dwelling time for a particular geofence, which only activates the app to perform an event when the user spends a certain amount of time within the geofence. Thus, it is important to understand the location and the purpose of the event to determine the radius of the geofence.


Control the events

On a basic level, each geofence entry or exit can trigger an event every single time. However, to prevent sending too frequent and irrelevant messages, it is important to establish a set of rules that determine if and what event is performed.

The rules can include the following information:

  • User information from a CRM system or loyalty program
  • Characteristics of the geofence location
  • Frequency by which the geofence is triggered in a certain timeframe.
  • Frequency by which messages are sent to the user.
  • The time at which the geofence is hit

By setting some rules, it can be determined if for a particular geofence trigger an event will be triggered and what the event will be e.g. the content of the message and the service that is provided. There are no limitations to the combination of rules and flows that can be created.

Give the user control

Furthermore, with regards to privacy concerns and giving the user control over their app experience, it is important to provide the user with some control. The user should have the option to opt-out of all of the location based notifications but should also be given the options to receive some of the notifications if they want. Within the settings, it is thus important to explain the various triggers and events so that the user has control over the various notifications.



How can this technology be applied to create value for the user?

There are many opportunities to use this technology in apps and create smart notifications and services depending on the context of the user. The retail and hospitality industry are prime candidates to adopt this technology, but there are many more industries that can use geofence technology to create valuable experiences for the user.

Retail app

The retail industry in general can benefit from this technology as some retailers have many stores which can be used as relevant points for the user.

  • General retail applications: when a user is near a store, send them special offers, win back campaigns, rewards, reminders, or shopping tips.
  • General retail applications: use previous browsing history to suggest the user to come into the store and view the products in real-life when they are nearby.
  • General retail applications: when a user is near a store, use previous user purchase data to send a message about relevant in-store items or a possible sale of their favorite brand.
  • Automotive retail: when a user is near a service point and their car is up for service, send a message to remind them of their upcoming service and possibly provide an offer as an incentive to come to the service point.
  • Phone retail stores: when a user is near a store and are near the end of their contract, send a message to ask them to visit the store to review their contract.
  • Banking offices: similar to the phone retail stores, banks can invite their customers to visit a nearby store to discuss their personal finance and see if they can be of any service depending on the user’s situation.


Hotel app

For a hotel app, the use of geofence technology can increase the service level for the user when travelling to the hotel, but could also be used to speed up the check-in procedure. This is one step in making the app the central point of the hotel experience.

Use cases:

  • When user has booked a room for a hotel and enters the geofence of the hotel on the day of the booking, send the user a welcome message and inform them that the keys are ready at the front desk. At the same time, a message to the front desk can be sent to have the guest’s key and check-in information ready.
  • The geofence of the hotel can also be used to send a message to the hotel’s IT system to inform them that the guest has exited the geofence. This information can for example be used to manage the room cleaning and maintenance services.
    Knowing that American guests who book a Hotel in Amsterdam almost exclusively fly via Schiphol Airport, a geofence can be setup at the airport. After disembarking off the plane, the app can send the user a welcome message and provide suggestions on how to travel to the Hotel.
  • When a guest arrives at a city, geofences can be set up around interesting places such as tourist attractions, nearby lunch places, or to provide alternative suggestions. In the case of a business traveller, geofences can be set around convention centres and other business areas. When they exit the geofence, they can be sent suggestions about transport to the hotel or nearby places for food and drinks.



Restaurant or cafes app

Restaurants or cafes can apply geofence technology similar to the retail app. It can be used to send a notification when the user is near its location. When connecting the notification to the CRM or loyalty system, various smart notifications with suggestions or offers can be sent.

  • By using notifications, the user can be prompted to visit the restaurant or cafe. In addition, it can be used to send information about their special of the day, or if they’re a returning customer, remind them of a previously ordered meal or beverage.


Airline app

Travelling can be stressful for many people, but geofence technology can be used to make flying a bit more relaxed by providing context based information. Based on flight ticket information, the airline can set up geofences at the departure and arrival gates.

  • Upon entering the departure gate, the user can be sent a welcome message and a link for their boarding pass, be provided with a walking route through the airport, or suggest places to relax before departure.
  • At the arrival gate, the user can be offered a walking route to the baggage claim area, or be sent a notification with suggestions on how to travel to the nearest town with a link to a ride-hailing or public transport app or website.

The examples above demonstrate that there are many opportunities to create unique personal experiences. Whether it is directly related to selling products, providing a unique and personal experience or providing additional services in line with the user journey. The geofence technology enables the creation of these personal experiences that are specific to the context of the user and the location.

Nonetheless, it is important to bear in mind that when geolocation technology is poorly implemented, the user can receive many unwanted or irrelevant notifications. As a result, the user’s trust can be damaged which may result in the removal of the app in favour of a competitor. Therefore, it is important to consider whether geofence technology is the right technology for the particular user journey that is being envisioned.

When the technology is implemented correctly, it allows the creation of unique context based user experiences which will positively delight the user and will create value for both the business and the user.


At MOBGEN, we have the experience creating value adding experiences for the user with the use of geofence technology. By building and testing apps from a customer perspective, MOBGEN can guarantee the best customer experience. Please don’t hesitate to contact us If you need further information – we’ll be happy to help!