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Geotargeting Marketing in an Age of Data Control: Futuristic, or Just Creepy?

By Lauren McMenemy on June 29, 2018

There was a time, not too long ago, when geotargeting capabilities seemed endless. Every week a new piece of tech got the marketing industry all aquiver, dreaming of how geotargeting marketing would bring us more consumer insights and allow us to target consumers with an even tighter focus. We referred to this approach as "personalized," optimized for conversions.

But when the mechanisms behind this personalization came to light, the picture became muddied. Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal spooked the public with how much data companies had access to and how it was used to push them specific messages. Then, GDPR came along to tighten the reins and put the power back in the hands of the consumer. In this new world of data control, geotargeting marketing seems not so shiny-and geotargeted content for some seems like one step too far.

Do we, as marketers, really need to know the finite details of our audience's lives in order to market to them?

Imagine this: You're walking along the street when your phone beeps. You take it out, and it's not a message from mom-it's the boutique across the road inviting you in to look at their sale. Or maybe you've logged on to a website to do some browsing, and it tells you the date, time, and weather where you are. Helpful or creepy?

Both of these situations are examples of geotargeting. As technology advances, we can get even more granular in our targeting and conversion aims. Knowing where your customer is-whether they're walking down the street, or via their IP address when they log onto your website-can help to personalize their journey. Today the real question isn't what geotargeting can do, but when it's appropriate to employ it.

What Do We Mean by Geotargeting Marketing?

As you can gather from the prefix, geomarketing uses content targeted by location. It can be as broad as a country or state, or as specific as a perimeter around a building. We're not talking about programmatic advertising necessarily-although programmatic certainly brings in location as a targeting mechanism-but other means of communication, from emails to pop-up offers to push notifications on phones.

Boy learning archery

Image attribution: Annie Spratt

The central idea is that by understanding a consumer's real-time, or past, location, marketers can achieve the holy grail of delivering the "right message at the right time." A prime example of geotargeting is Google Local Business-you know those options that appear when searching for "sushi near me"? That's geotargeting. Google can tell by your IP address where you are and will only give you options for businesses that are easy to reach from that location.

But geotargeting marketing is not just for local businesses. Larger companies can use it on a regional basis to target campaigns and speak more precisely to prospects and existing customers.

Some marketers argue geo-specific content is cheaper and more effective than other types of content when looking to acquire local customers-and they're right, to an extent. If you operate a store in Manhattan, then customers searching in Miami are hardly going to visit you on a regular basis.

Certainly, marketers have been making the most of geotargeted content for years through global SEO, location-specific landing pages, and even separate sites for separate countries. There are of course SEO concerns (Marketing Profs provides a useful breakdown), but from a content perspective it can be as simple as transcreating existing content to speak to a specific region. And, of course, location is key to personalizing advertising-the more relevant an ad or offer is, the more likely it is to drive sales.

But none of that information is new, and none of it is particularly creepy. If I'm looking for services in Australia, I want to read about Australian services. It's obvious, and most consumers will accept that level of location-based marketing.

It's the extension of this personalization, now enabled by technology that's caught up with desire, that starts to set off alarm bells for people and raise GDPR concerns.

In-Store Personalization: Sales Booster, or Stalker Behavior?

Take, for example, geofencing. A marketer sets a digital perimeter around a target area, such as a store or an event, so they can target communications in a given zone or a given context. It uses mostly GPS technology-not IP addresses as with geolocation-to cordon off an area with a virtual fence. When a device moves into or out of the fenced area, triggers are sent and the user will receive a message, usually a push notification set up by the marketing team.

Of course, in the GDPR era, geofencing faces a lot of issues around permissions and opt-ins, so it's likely we'll see less of it while companies figure out their policies.

Man walking along street with shopping bag

Image attribution: Kevin Laminto

Then, there are beacons. Beacons, or BLEs (Bluetooth Low Energy), have loads of potential, but they also raise questions about potential intrusions into their privacy. This technology uses small physical boxes placed around an area whose sole purpose is to detect a device such as a phone as it moves around the location. The beacons send a signal that a device is nearby, and then a server sends a push notification, a text, an in-app message, or even an email-again, as decided and written by the marketing team.

UK supermarket chain Sainsbury's had some recent success with beacon technology, as detailed by WARC. As part of their loyalty program, the brand set out to validate a few hypotheses:

  1. Could consumers be accurately tracked and located in-store?
  2. Could that data be turned into meaningful, valuable insights?
  3. Could location data influence shopper behavior through the delivery of personalized and contextual messages?

They found a strong enough offer pushed at the right time could persuade shoppers to retrace their steps from one end of the store to the other. Early results from the experiment also showed sales and spend both went up seven percent.

Compare Sainsbury's success to Nordstrom, which tried a similar experiment in 2013, using smartphone surveillance to track in-store behavior of shoppers, and copped a whole load of flak for it, with some consumers complaining that the practice went "way over the line." It's possible that the intervening years have accustomed shoppers to in-store personalization, or it may be that budget-conscious grocery shoppers are more open to personalized offers than browsers of expensive clothing.

Privacy versus Convenience: the Eternal Conundrum

In this post-Cambridge Analytica age, do we really want to be following customers around a store just to make them spend more?

"Privacy and security concerns are, by many accounts, the one thing holding location-based services back from exploding," writes Lauren Leonardi for Braze. "There are lots of questions, as yet unanswered. For example, when considering anonymity, is it okay if trackers gather data, but aren't able to discern exactly who a user is? There are questions of security and privacy, and information one company might share with another. There are questions of choice: should customers always have to opt-in, or can opt-outs work, too? There are questions about who can and can't be trusted with these services: your company, for example, versus, say, the U.S. government."

That is the main issue with geotargeted content: Whether it's a carefully crafted push notification or a location-based landing page totally optimized to drive footfall to stores, it still relies on personal data to work. And personal data is sacred right now. You must first size up the convenience and conversion rates against privacy and user experience-not just start tracking customers around stores because you can. What will you get from the data? Is it worth doing? What impact will it have on the objectives of your marketing strategy?

As marketers we get so bogged down in tactics that the bigger picture sometimes escapes us. Yes, geotargeted marketing is a shiny toy to play with, but does it make sense for you? If it does, then do your research. Talk to your customers, ask them if they consent. Make audiences aware of how their information is being gathered, and how you're going to use the data in the long term. This, my friends, is the new era of marketing: Take a breath before jumping. Ask the questions. Then design campaign tactics that respect your users. No ifs, ands, or buts.

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Featured image attribution: Daniel Gonzalez


Lauren McMenemy

Lauren is a storyteller. A journalist by trade, she has worked in agencies, in-house and in the media over her 20-year career. She's worked as an editorial strategist and content creator for some of the world's biggest brands, setting up processes and guidelines, advising on planning, auditing content, building loyal audiences, leading social campaigns, writing blogs and flyers and presentations - pretty much handling the stuff with words. She was born in Australia, has resided in London for the last decade, and writes fiction on the side. You’ll often find her grinning like a fool at a rock concert.