Marketing automation companies are trying all sorts of ways and times to push notifications to the mobile phones of potential customers.

Delivering the message at the right time to the right prospect to keep them moving toward a purchase is the name of the game, but pushing messages to the screen of a smartphone — a very personal space — well, there are lots of ways to screw that up.

San Francisco-based Tapcentive believes that notifications can be effective, but that customers are more receptive to them if they’ve actively chosen to accept them.

The company is today launching a mobile marketing automation platform that uses a $35 “Touchpoint” device that store customers can “tap” with their phones to earn coupons, loyalty points, and other rewards.

The device, which is about the size of a small fire alarm, contains both a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacon and a near field communications (NFC) radio, each of which can detect the tap of the customer’s phone. Many Android phones already have NFC chips, and Apple is expected to outfit its new phones and smartwatches with them.

How it works

If a customer taps a Touchpoint device when they come in the door of a brick-and-mortar store, the store’s app could launch automatically. If the customer doesn’t have the store’s app, the Tapcentive platform would show them how to get it, then help them launch it for an instant reward.

consumer_outdoor2The Touchpoint device can be placed near customer traffic lanes anywhere around the store.

The important thing is that a marketing communication channel has been opened between a customer and a brand, and the customer has intentionally begun it.

This “pull” notification, as Tapcentive calls it, can open a trust relationship where the customer might be OK with passively receiving “push” notifications from there on out (this is especially likely if the customer got something of value after she tapped the beacon the first time).

Or not. “Some customers will never come off pulls, but you need to offer both pushes and pulls and allow the customer to decide,” says Tapcentive CEO Dave Wentker.

Many triggers, modes

The Touchpoint tap can be an important icebreaker, but Wentker points out that the Tapcentive platform will offer many ways to reach the customer through a single technology platform.

The Tapcentive platform, which is delivered as a software-as-a-service, is now focused on reaching customers while they’re in the store. But Tapcentive plans to add new features that reach the customer using social media tie-ins, website links, SMS messages, email, and even physical mail (for things like mail-in sweepstakes offers).

For the developers who create the store apps, Tapcentive provides iOS and Android software development kits (SDKs) that include a set of animated notifications that can be skinned with the stores own colors and icons.

The notifications can also be made into games. For instance, the store might set up a game where the customer gets a coupon after going around the store and tapping Touchpoints in four different departments. Another game might give a reward to every tenth customer who taps on a Touchpoint. Still another might register the customer in a sweepstakes.

The store uses a campaign management web portal as a dashboard to manage locations and plan out all the content types and triggers by which it wants to communicate with mobile customers.

The Tapcentive system, Wentker points out, provides a set of analytics tools to measure the efficacy of campaigns. The system also integrates with the store’s existing customer relationship management, fulfillment, loyalty, and campaign management systems.

Tapcentive currently has seven full-time employees, a couple of contractors, and an intern. Wentker and three other founders launched the company with their own money (and that of some friends and family), then closed a $1.5 million round of convertible debt funding in July.