#SFSNYC: Moving Beyond Basic Location-Based Advertising Without Getting Creepy

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Location data can be leveraged and put to work for marketing in far more ways than basic geo-targeted advertising, and its utility can grow exponentially when applied to other functions and roles.

Yet with those extra uses come caveats and concerns, especially regarding privacy. Allison Schiff, senior editor at AdExchanger, addressed those concerns as she moderated a panel on the topic at Street Fight Summit in Brooklyn. “There is a balance between doing something because you can and whether you should,” Schiff said.

Joining her were Brian Dalessandro, director of data science at Zocdoc; Mark Risis, head of global data partnerships at IBM Watson; and Sheethal Showbowale, global head of business analytics at Waze.

Dalessandro said it is important for businesses to think about location as the primary differentiator that can set apart a company’s mobile strategy from those of its rivals. If a company does not treat location that way, it risks missing out on a key opportunity.

At the same time, location has its pitfalls, and Zocdoc has a love-hate relationship with it.  “Location is a big thing, but also a thorn,” Dalessandro said. It can even be a barrier in some ways.

For example, users of Zocdoc, who turn to the service in order to find physicians, sometimes prioritize locating nearby doctors to the extent that they forgo seeking medical treatment because options are too far away—especially in rural areas. Such individuals may then find themselves in an emergency room, providing a prime example of “where location is a problem.”

Ideally, location data could be used to steer users to access other accessible treatment options sooner, Dalessandro said, if it is presented to them in the right way.

Partnerships offer brands other opportunities to make the most out of location data, Showbowale said. Waze, for example, has entered into a product partnership with Dunkin Donuts that lets users of the app know when they can drive up to a nearby location to pick up their donuts and coffee.

Waze can also make use of driving data to sketch behavioral patterns of users in ways with which other modes of data collection cannot compete in terms of accuracy. While it is possible that a consumer might answer surveys with cherry-picked answers, the act of visiting locations speaks for itself, she said. Waze can share information as to where drivers might travel to next based on their past behavior. “People can’t fake where they are driving,” Showbowale said.

Waze discovered that often after users of the app visit gyms to exercise, they stop at fast food restaurants. In a similar vein, some users of the app visit fast food establishments much more in December before resuming visits to the gym in January. “We see the world play out in our data,” she said.

A sense of responsibility does come with being able to gather copious amounts of location data, Risis said. There may be ways to collect and use data, but that does not necessarily make it ethical or appropriate.

An aggressive salesperson might want to closely track the activity of a potential client on a deeply personal level. That type of information might offer insight on ways to more effectively sell products and services to them, but it also begs the question of why a company would cross such a line.

As for guidelines pertaining to the ethical use of location data, Risis offered the following maxim: “Don’t do creepy stuff.” 

“It doesn’t serve the marketer in any long term way,” he said. “Steer on the conservative side; there is a lot of temptation to veer off that path.”