Our Senior Technology Strategist, Harry Bevan, talks about the emerging field of location tracking and what this means to marketers and privacy-sensitive citizens.

We’ve all clicked that “Let XYZ app use your location” dialog box – it’s clear what it’s for isn’t it? So the app can show you things nearby and so you can post your location? Well yes, but that’s only part of the story – in fact the big players in the digital world are increasingly using this data to power marketing that many of us never thought was possible.

Attribution is the holy grail of marketing – if we can prove that a customer is visiting because a certain campaign, we can prove ROI. In a pre-digital world this was guesswork and intuition, bolstered by rudimentary solutions like coupons and vouchers.

Digital changed all that – we can see impressions, clicks, leads and conversion rates. For businesses where the consumer converts online we can apply attribution models and track every penny of marketing spend.

But for a Bricks and Mortar store there’s a gap – a customer browsing your store doesn’t have a tracking code, so we’re back to square one …or are we? This is the problem Facebook and Google are aiming to solve by tracking your location. With last year’s launch of Facebook’s store-visit conversion, both Facebook and Google can now link whether our online campaigns result in customers visiting locations.

So how does it work? Facebook knows if you’ve seen an ad, but in Facebook’s case the app is usually set to always track your location, as long as you have your phone in your pocket. It can also use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connection data (more on that later). The advertiser uploads location data for each of their stores, so by mapping these two together with a bit of clever processing, it can confidently estimate a location.

In fact location tracking doesn’t even require location services to be turned on. A recent TfL trial tracked how people moved around the Tube network by using the Tube’s new Wi-Fi network. When your phone has Wi-Fi turned on, it’s constantly scanning nearby networks to see what’s available, as it does this it sends a unique ID known as a MAC address. Now this isn’t personally identifiable – they can’t link this data to you, but it can be collected even if you don’t connect to that Wi-Fi network, so long as you have Wi-Fi on.

TfL’s data is valuable – they can see who has taken what route across their network, and traffic and volumes of people around stations and platforms, but it also opens up new opportunities for advertising. Not only could TfL price their ad slots based on the number of people who have seen them, but imagine a campaign that’s targeted to you and follows you on your journey across town.

It remains to be seen what customer attitudes are to this, the examples we’ve discussed are pretty discreet, as a customer you’re never told “You’ve visited this store” or “You’ve visited this station” – I suspect that doing this would cross the line and create a privacy backlash.

So what do you think - does this sound like the holy grail of marketing or an Orwellian nightmare? Let us know on @creationuk or @_harrybevan

By Harry Bevan on 24/02/2017