Location, Location, (Understanding) Location

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Location mapping circa 1689
Location mapping circa 1689

There are three things you need to know about location marketing. First, marketers know where people are. At least, they do if they're in some relatively non-remote part of North America: location data is plentiful.

Second, location marketing is inextricably linked to the Internet of Things (don't panic: we explained that here). Location marketing is part and parcel of an ongoing merger between the "real" and digital worlds. Third, the "real" world aspect of location marketing brings some interested and unexpected players off the bench.

What does "where" mean?

Data mavens have developed various definitions of location over the history of location marketing. Here are a few you should be familiar with:

  • Tiling. Remember the squares defined by latitude and longitude on an old-fashioned Mercator map? Tiling is the obvious technique of layering a grid over the territory of interest, and defining location by squares on the grid.
  • Geo-fencing. A useful step beyond tiling, because it defines location in relation to a place of interest. Take a retail store, a restaurant, a stadium; draw a perimeter around it (100 yards, a mile), then define location as being within that perimeter. Rounding up prospects? Maybe.
  • Spatial. Skeptics say that someone isn't in the market for a cup of coffee just because they're near a Starbucks. A spatial approach looks less at current location, more about where someone has just been and (predictively) where they're going. Think of it as tracing vectors of intent.

Big data is watching you

The data which can track individuals within one or other of those location templates has, for the most part, obvious sources. If you're carrying a mobile device--and who isn't?--GPS tracking can find you. Enabling location permissions can permit the device to be tracked by individual apps. In another development, businesses are increasingly investing in mobile beacons which can deliver precisely relevant messaging to proximate mobile devices.

Some vendors offer location data based on social media activity. The geo-tagging which is often embedded in photos and other content uploaded to social networks, combined with keyword and hashtag searches, permit tracking social activity within a tile or radius, or along a vector, of interest.

What's more, the entire IoT network, which is steadily seeding the world around us with sensors, is designed to facilitate data exchange between devices and appliances as we move around our households, ride in our vehicles, and roam generally across the physical landscape. Marketers figured out online tracking a long time ago: the distinction between online and offline activity is rapidly vanishing.

Let's sell something

Location tracking, then, is an advanced and sophisticated science. But once we know where people are, how do we sell them stuff? Frankly, location marketing today remains experimental. Beyond the banal--"She's near our store, let's send a discount coupon to her phone"--are more creative approaches, some of which may turn out to be fruitful.

  • Turn crowds into audiences. At a fundamental level, location data can be combined with demographic, behavioral and CRM data to refine custom audiences for campaigns.
  • Responsive billboards and ad displays.  Imaging knowing, whether at the segment or individual level, who is looking at your "real" world advertising, as well as where they've been, where they're going, and what their recent browsing and social behavior has been. Cloud-based inventory permits precise targeting of ads in a physical (but digitally connected environment). And how about if the ad display can interact with the passer-by's mobile device?
  • Crafting the journey. Knowing who you're marketing to, their location, the time of day, the weather, and other contextual features, allows you to deliver content geared to utility, mood and predicted intent. The message you deliver to someone in their car during the morning rush might be quite different--in tone as well as content--to a message delivered to someone taking a run, eating lunch, or relaxing at home.

Leave me alone

It's necessary to say a word about privacy.  Much location tracking takes place on the basis of permission, even if those are sometimes unwittingly given. What's more, the better data vendors, even though they're virtually tailing you, don't need to know who you are. As Claudia Perlich, Chief Scientist at ad tech company Dstillery once told me: "I don't know who you are, and I don't want to know. We can anonymize incoming data, and yet still be quite precise about who is in the market."

Think of prospects not as human individuals--for these purposes, anyway--but as individual patterns of activity.

Location is a broad playing field

Because location marketing is essentially about reaching people who have stepped away from their desk-bound digital experience and are moving through the physical landscape, real estate is suddenly a valuable marketing resource. Outfront Media is one example of an old-school billboard business (it's the former CBS Outdoor) building a digital vision around a portfolio of outdoor real estate assets. Expect other vendors with real estate investments to realize they now own valuable components of the digital network.

In the end, location marketing is part of a much more general effort to access the complete customer journey, no matter where it occurs. As the song goes, "Every step you take..."

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