A ground level view of the consumer

I know exactly where you are as you read this. How does that make you feel? If you either disbelieve it or alternatively feel slightly unsettled, then welcome to the new frontier in the battle between data usage and privacy.

Geo-location data is a hot-ticket item right now, driven by the saturation of mobile devices in our lives as consumers. Facebook Places is the latest and most high-profile application of spatial information as part of a service. By leveraging mobile phone GPS data, people can share their current location, check in with a location’s own site, find out who else is there and tag friends.

It is this latter possibility that has caused some concerns about invasion of privacy. One thing to choose to tell the world that you are at a venue, cinema or restaurant – quite another for somebody else in your party to do it for you, possibly without your permission. There can be many legitimate reasons to prefer not to have your current location broadcast, including that you simply want to be left alone.

Marketers have other ideas. To digital marketers, geo-location represents an exciting new opportunity for targeting of ads, content and services. It might be a prompt to see the latest release as you pass a cinema or a coupon delivered to your phone as you talk outside a coffee shop.

Until now, you could only do that if the subscriber had opted-in to be sent ads. Relatively few consumers do this, so only network providers get to reach this roaming band of potential shoppers. Insert the permission into a service, such as a Place page on Facebook, and you instantly have a reason for the individual to give permission.

But that consent starts to blur if it is broadly applied, for example by agreeing to use Places and getting checked in everywhere. You may want to share the fact that you have been to a really great concert. If the place is a hotel chain you happen to be walking past, the same willingness can not be assumed.

One solution may be to follow the approach used with fixed devices and IP geo-location. This effectively detunes the targeting to as much a 25 or 50-mile radius. That is an improvement on no targeting at all, but limits how personalised offers and content can be.

Before dismissing this, just consider how much benefit marketing has gained from geo-demographic profiling since it was first launched twenty years ago. Even at postcode sector level – which can be a pretty large area – you are breaking the UK down into 11,000 different spaces.

It is a beginning if you are moving from broadcast to targeted marketing. For mobile advertising, if privacy concerns take hold, it might be where you end up.

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