Location Targeting is Nothing Without the Facts to Back it Up

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I, for one, believe the noise about location targeting in ad tech is getting a bit overheated. Like many ad tech tactics of the recent past, the innovation behind location targeting addresses known shortcomings in digital marketing. There are numerous different applications for this technology, but there are also some real complications when it comes to execution.

As marketers, we need to be able to sort out the facts from fiction when we are looking to reach fans at a game, capture the attention of attendees at a political rally, or identify a new car buyer on the dealer lot. Promises can be misleading. Some of the location targeting solutions out there can add a lot of value, but some may fail to live up to their rhetorical claims.

In what follows, I examine three major ideas surrounding the marketing functionality of location tech and explain the granular complexities underlying those ideas.

“We have grid map that we overlay that lets you deliver your ads to the exact event location.”

In principle, there may be nothing technically inaccurate about this claim. The issue, however, lies in what this grid is linked to. Property dimensions are inconsistent in the real world. Mapping a property to a grid or setting a radius from the GPS location of either the mailbox or a rooftop can involve many extraneous locations—like neighboring homes, surrounding businesses, and even the folks driving by on the road because they pass the mailbox.

In the real world, stadiums, office parks, malls, and car lots are irregular; a radius restricted to just the stadium would start from a GPS location starting around second base, cover the luxury boxes and the lower grandstands but miss the outfield bleachers and the parking lots. Dealerships can be on a street corner or stretch two-cars deep for a quarter-mile. Other dealerships are adjacent to five competitive dealerships covering over 100 acres.

The point is that location solutions need actual data to be accurate. There can be a big drop off in accuracy when targeting a postal address at the mailbox or even the rooftop. In the real world, a property has exact dimensions that are defined by the plot plan, or its parcel dimensions. Assessors’ offices have actual plot plans on file for over 130 million properties in the U.S. Accurate location targeting involves accessing these parcels and building a targeting solution around each property parcel so that the audiences people are targeting are unambiguously accurate.

“What is the availability of targetable inventory of unique users at an event?”

Let’s face it: Unique user reach remains the singular challenge in ad tech. It is the metric that has vexed a 30% match-rate, cookie-based world ever since (some) marketers finally started accepting that ad blocking was a real issue. However, in location targeting, the challenge isn’t just about ad-blockers—it is about having access at scale to active devices. For many campaigns, securing device access can quickly turn into a math and time problem. The infrastructure required to maintain constant access to active mobile device signals is not trivial. Linking those devices to the right people involves rapid-response matching with access to real households and businesses on real property parcels.

Access to device signals can come from the bid feed of the ad server or from app inventory history collected from millions of devices over time. There is a major difference in the efficacy between the two approaches. From the bid feed, the ad server natively supports retargeting—but that is essentially ad serving in the dark to an undefined audience. There is nothing insightful about it. You don’t know who the receiver is or where they are located because ad server location data is largely generic to the centroids of postal codes. In retargeting you are also limited to the pool of devices that transact through the single ad platform. With Google and Facebook scooping up a lot of the “in-the-moment” inventory access, what’s left over can be limited.

Linking devices to people and their attributes is the key to understanding whether a user is a proper recipient for your ad. A rapid update mechanism keeping audiences current and accurate helps determine whether you are really achieving the unique user reach you think you are. If your audience targeting solution is IP-based, a minimum of a daily rapid-response update of an audience is essential, as device IPs change frequently, and updates are the only way to maintain both accuracy and scale in a campaign.

“We can target people when they are at the location.”

To make this claim, the audience supplier needs to provide a ready-made audience of active devices on apps and pages the supplier knew were going to show up—before the event happens. The supplier would also need a proprietary form of beacon technology that could recognize a pre-built history of devices entering a location. Beacon technology is still quite rare and limited in the size of venues it supports. It is expensive to set up and, at best, has generated mixed reviews on performance, especially when related to scale.

Ad tech is still largely a “catch, not shoot” technology. A person must access an app or a webpage that causes the ad server to make a call to bidders for each ad spot. The server determines the audience that wins the bid, and then an ad is served. All this must happen in under 10 milliseconds. Placing processing logic on top of the existing bid process would require recognizing the entry of a person to a location, identifying that person as a proper target, and generating an update to a pre-built audience on a remote ad server. Only then would the initiation of a browser or app call happen. You still need to win the bid and serve an ad under 10 milliseconds. This is impractical. It should not be claimed as a realistic capability.

Bottom Line

Location targeting provides marketers with a great deal of value because it can provide better insight regarding user actions and interests. It positions the ad recipient closer to the transaction. This alone provides a marketer with a huge advantage. Doing it right, however, involves some scrutiny of the process. Accuracy of a location through parcel targeting, a rapid refresh audience strategy, and reaching the right people at scale through IP and cross-device targeting will make a major difference in location-based campaign outcomes.

Ray Kingman, CEO, has been at Semcasting, Inc., since its inception, leading the company in the development and commercialization of its automated targeting and data offerings. As an experienced innovator in content management, analytics, and data visualization fields, Ray directs the day-to-day operations of Semcasting.