Coming soon: Two more apps that will serve up location-specific offers

Screenshot from Epoque's website.
Screenshot from Epoque's website.

How many times have you heard this scenario pitched: You’re walking down Newbury Street looking for lunch, when suddenly your phone chimes with a geographically-relevant offer. If you go just one block down, you can get 25 percent off lunch at a new French bistro (your favorite cuisine!)

Another two Boston startups, Epoque and Howler, are about to launch new mobile apps geared to just that kind of local offer. I’m eager to try them, since this is a really tough startup challenge. First, you’ve got to get a critical mass of customers and businesses using the app in individual neighborhoods (you probably don’t want to see an offer for a nail salon in the South End if you’re walking around Davis Square). Then you’ve got to deliver offers that are relevant enough so they’re not annoying to users, and discounts that are deep enough to get customers in the door. But not so deep that merchants feel they’re losing their shirts.

The Epoque app is the more active of the two. You open it and say either “I’m hungry,” “I’m bored,” or “I’m sleepy.” Nearby businesses using Epoque’s website can see that message for three minutes, and respond with an offer that lasts three minutes — perhaps for a free appetizer, or a last-minute pair of theater tickets. Businesses will be able to use Epoque to send out a certain number of offers for free, and then they’ll be asked to pay to continue using it. In addition to getting customers in the door during slow times, Epoque will also offer analytics to help them understand which offers are most successful at doing so. “There’s no tool to get people in the door in ten minutes,” says co-founder Nathan Dionne, a former “marketing ninja” at CashStar, an e-gifting company in Maine. Dionne says the startup plans a major promotional push in September when the college students return.

Howler is a bit more passive from the user’s point of view. Once you’ve got the app, you can get notifications about sales or discounts as you roam around town. The startup plans to deploy Apple’s iBeacon transmitters to participating venues, which use the Bluetooth Low Energy wireless protocol to send messages that can pop up on the screens of nearby iPhones. Co-founder Hunter Gaylor says they’ve signed up “over 60 stores in Boston.” Several iBeacon devices will be installed in each location, so that Howler can track not only whether a customer received an offer, but whether it brought them through the front door. The startup plans to charge merchants a “pay per visit” fee, similar to online “pay per click” advertising. “Retailers only pay if it works,” says Gaylor. “If a hundred people walking past your store see an ad, and only fifty walk in, you’re only paying for those.” Howler has demoed at several recent startup events, including last night’s Boston New Technology Meetup, and plans to launch in August.

(I wrote a Globe column about local deals back in 2010; several of those startups, including Zaang/I Am Hungry, have since faded away.)

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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