The future of big data is all about location

Marketers are increasingly turning to location data but issues such as privacy remain front of mind, Shona Ghosh writes.

Uber: helped advance use of location data
Uber: helped advance use of location data

Knowing where to place your marketing message used to be a simple matter of media selection. But "where" increasingly means literally anywhere: wherever your consumers happen to be. Advances in technology-driven location data are now unlocking information on where consumers are and what they are doing. And that means better targeting.

No surprise, then, that marketers are taking action. According to a Posterscope survey of 100 marketers, most believe location data could improve ROI by 60% and plan to boost investment in this area. They also believe location data will be "fully embraced" in campaigns by 2019. 

But the UK is playing catch-up – US marketers are ahead of the curve. "In America, location is understood as a separate channel, particularly because location businesses like Uber and Airbnb started there," Postercope UK managing director Glen Wilson says. "On our side of the pond, building the tools that can ingest data and make sense of it has taken time."

There are other barriers to adoption in the UK, such as the fact that mobile operators have been slow to monetise the highly granular data they hold on customers.

EE set up mData in 2012 to sell anonymised, aggregated customer data to partners such as Posterscope and, Wilson notes, was the first carrier to offer the service. O2 parent Telefónica set up an analytics division later that year, with Vodafone following suit in 2013.

Marketers are also trying to make sense of multiple sources of data. Beyond mobile operators, there are tools such as xAd that plug into millions of apps to gather users’ location information. Meanwhile, businesses unrelated to advertising, such as satnav companies, are "becoming more awake" to the value of their location data, Wilson adds. Another example is Transport for London, whose live Tube data is available through an open application programming interface.

These challenges are compounded by the fact that many agencies have been slow to understand the importance of the data. According to Posterscope’s research, marketers are excited by the targeting opportunities location data offers but see their agencies as a barrier to making it happen. 

"As a client, I want the right stuff that helps me be better informed," Michael Price, Asics’ EMEA marketing director, says. "Eventually, I think there will be consolidation in agencies again, because the current model is unsustainable for clients. You get lots of different fees for different tasks, where actually you want less fees, greater quality and better connection." 

Finally, there’s the issue of consumer privacy. The fact that people continue to use Facebook despite many privacy outcries suggest most are comfortable with exchanging personal information for a service. But a recent request from Comcast to sell users’ web-browsing data to advertisers raised questions about whether anything anyone does on the internet will ever be private. The idea that a satnav brand might sell a customer’s (anonymised) journey data will not be well-received by everyone. In 2013, mData caused concern when The Sunday Times reported that the Metropolitan Police was interested in the data.

"It’s a balance," Wilson concedes. "As soon as you lose trust, it’s difficult to get that back. There’s a behavioural line not to cross – it would be a bit Big Brother if you did what was theoretically possible."

Wilson cites the trial of sponsored high-speed public Wi-Fi in New York as a valid value exchange. Demand for the service is such that customers are happy to give up huge amounts of location data, including information on what they’re looking at and where.

"People are attuned to the online experience," Wilson says. "They understand they are not getting the service for nothing. But if something is freakishly relevant, that’s disconcerting." 

Marketers will need to get the balance right.

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Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).

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