Placecast President: Increasing Relevance With Location-Aware Ads

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Placecast is a location-based mobile ad company that uses “geo-fencing” to help brands extend offers to consumers in the vicinity of their store. The company says it “has pioneered the first fully integrated platform solution for device manufacturers, local directory companies, and mobile operators to easily integrate and monetize location-based information from virtually any source.”

Street Fight recently caught up with Anne Bezancon, Placecast’s president and CEO, to talk about the evolving world of location-based marketing, and how mobile marketing is changing the way that we think about shopping.

Where did the idea for Placecast originate?
[Having seen the evolution of the Web], it became obvious to me that the future of online was going to be mobile. What really matters is that you can take into consideration the physical reality around you and be able to associate the physical world you are in with all that capability of the Internet and connectivity and processing information and doing useful things with it.

One of the things that I’ve always been personally sensitive to is the relevance of the information that I’m looking at, particularly in the realm of advertising. I have always found it ridiculous that I would be bombarded with hundreds of ad messages that were not useful to me. Knowing the economy of the Internet was very much based on advertising dollars, I felt there was a better way to match the information that the advertisers had to communicate to people they want to touch and figure out how to do that.

The underlying principle that gave birth to Placecast — and the technology that we’ve built over the past five or six years now — is really based on location being the center of the experience. If you can manage location information and attach advertising and marketing information to that, at scale and in real time, then you can really provide a service both on the marketer’s side and the users.

Placecast predated the release of the iPhone in 2007. Did you anticipate the increasing ubiquity of location-aware phones?
It was obvious to me that the phone was going to morph into something else. What’s wonderful about the iPhone is that it blew the door open. Now we’re just beginning to see the next genesis, Android has a different approach to this, and it’s just the beginning. We’re going to have devices in five to ten years that are going to be always with us and that are going to be so much smarter than what anybody is capable of imagining today.

If you can manage location information and attach advertising and marketing information to that — at scale and in real time — then you can really provide a service both on the marketer’s side and the users.

This is what’s exciting about being in this space. There’s all this technological ability, but at the end of the day it’s bringing it back to what is really useful for people out of all the potential of the technology. Saving time, saving money, providing information to make better decisions, being able to act on things that you couldn’t otherwise act on, et cetera.

What kinds of problems do you think location technology will evolve to address in the near future?
I think there are two problems. The first one is the relevance of the information that it can access, and the fact that today the experience of mobile is so much of a search experience.

In the early days of the Web, the success of search engines — and Google’s domination after a while, because it had a better mousetrap — was all about allowing people to find stuff in a gigantic pile of things. I think that with mobile we’re moving to a new phase of this which is… searching is one way of accessing information we’ve been trained to do for the last 15 years, but the next wave of this is that I don’t have to search anymore because I can configure a service to provide to me what I’m looking for automatically, and take into consideration the location I’m in, and take into consideration what time of day or day of week it is, and take into consideration my preferences.

Do you think most people will opt-in to services that want this kind of preference and location information about them?
Yes, because the relevance of the information is going to be the trade-in value. I think what’s going to happen in the next few years is we’ll move away from a permission-based system where you asking me to say yes or no to something I don’t know and understand the ramifications of, and we should move into a much more negotiated model where I am trading my data — including location data — in exchange for more value in the information that’s coming to me.

When you talk to marketers, what they are really starting to discover with the flattening of the communication chain – meaning I can have a dialogue with my consumers on Facebook now. I can have my consumers tell me what they want from me and I am actually apt to talking to them much more directly now instead of blasting TV ads or buying online campaigns and getting a 0.01% click-through rate. So, it’s all about matching supply and demand in a better fashion and the technology. We’re just at the beginning of this era where technology can be actually used to empower people to have more equitable negotiation that’s valuable on each side.

The world of advertising is completely going to be transformed because of that. It’s going to be a much more direct relationship. It’s going to be a much more interactive relationship as well. At the end of the day, I as a consumer – as a user of this technology and as a consumer of this product — should be able to get more of what I am interested in a lot less of what I’m not interested in.

In the case of retailers it’s that if I have a preferred up-to-date relationship with Best Buy and I’m really interested in sound equipment but I’m not interested in anything else, Best Buy should be able to only send me the stuff I’m interested in. So, the opt-in is would you opt-in and there’s another layer to this we are starting to see which is what is the data that I am going to make available to you the marketer so that you can in turn deliver me the stuff I want This is where it gets more complicated, right? Because when you look at the model on Facebook which is I am one person in every scenario that I’m exposing on Facebook. I disagree with this. I think we are different people in different circumstances.

With the motorcycle store people I am going to be happy to tell them information about the bike I have and my size because it matters — because some of the bikes I don’t want pitched to me are too tall. So, you see where it gets very specific and people have passions and hobbies. In that interaction with that information, they are going to be willing to give you a lot more information to trade back a lot more useful promotions if only limited to the marketing universe.

Conversely, if I am in a business setting, if I’m on LinkedIn, none of that information about my motorcycle taste is relevant to a marketer. So, how do you organize the proper matching and filtering so that we can have different personas, if you will, and those personas have a different set of data about me that I can make available? It’s not necessarily a trade for money, it could be a trade for value, but it has to be transparent. The problem now if you look at Facebook, or Google, or anybody else, or all the data companies that are trading data it’s not transparent. It’s not very clearly understandable to the consumer and I think part of the consequence of this is sort of fears that are misplaced and that turns into regulation that is actually not that seems to be a problem.

How do you think the exploding daily deals space will evolve on mobile?
From a capability standpoint, what mobile brings is legitimacy; the real time management of information so you can get an offer where you are at that time to tell you what’s available in the store that you are close to.

So, if you think of Groupon Now as opposed to Groupon… instead of you getting an email with the deal of the day, you’re now walking about and you get a text message or notification that tells you there’s this product 70% off, or this service 70% off two blocks from you. So, it changes the opportunity, right? It works on impulse. When you push this example further down you’ll be able to set preference in your account and you will get only the deals that are what you are looking for.

That’s from a user’s side. Now, the problem with all these daily deals models is they have trained consumers to expect that things are always going to be cheaper than originally advertised. I think that’s a phase and it’s going to level off when merchants realize that it’s not always a good thing. Negative margin is not a good business to sustain your store.

The other piece of it is what is it that you’re really trying to achieve? If you’re trying to push artificial discovery of your offerings, that’s fine. How many customers are you going to have come back becomes a question.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.