Too many UK marketers view the growth of the Internet with a sense of disbelief. Their reaction is understandable. The fact that only a handful of UK companies currently exploit the interactive medium for commercial purposes has created a degree of scepticism of the true value of the Net. And when comparing this domestic experience with the runaway involvement of US marketers, it is easy to assume that their enthusiasm is misguided.
Make no mistake, however: as far as consumers are concerned, things are changing fast. They are speedily responding to the ability to access services and information across the Worldwide Web. Companies which fail to meet this growing demand risk being left behind. Even if the money to be earned now is far smaller than the cost of getting online, in three to five years it should prove its investment worth.
Those quickest off the mark in taking advantage of what the Internet can offer are the information and data vendors, but then the nature of the product and service they sell has almost been waiting for the Internet to happen so they can deliver its benefits more fully. The irony is that while the Web is a global network, the new generation of information services which is emerging is about local issues.
Marketers have long used geographical information systems (GIS), structuring data around geography so that it can be examined through a map, or so that analyses can be mapped to show their impact. From campaign planning to site location, the desktop mapping tool has proved indispensable.
Consumers will soon get the chance to put GIS to work by accessing data through the Internet using the postcode as the query tool. “The current systems we operate would very easily lend themselves to a customer-facing service,” says John Dobson, managing director of direct marketing company EuroDirect.
With Cameo Net, EuroDirect is the first data owner to put the electoral roll, geodemographic classification and additional data sets together in a format which allows marketers to access it through a Website. While primarily aimed at business-to-business environments, where distribution of the data to end users is an important issue, the underlying structure of the product means it could be applied to a consumer-facing application.
The company has been careful to ensure that data protection issues have been dealt with. A single male could not trawl the electoral roll looking for single females, for example.
While EuroDirect has put one of its data products on the Web, it has also just put a profiling product onto a GIS. “Demograf has the early functionality that companies could use. If you put in a postcode, for example, it tells you where the nearest library or shop is,” says Dobson.
As a result of the company’s work with Thomson Directories, such outlet data could be structured within a GIS and then put on a Website. A consumer looking for a travel agent, for example, could get the location by entering a postcode, with full address details, phone number and a map being returned on screen.
Quasi-GIS applications can already be found on Websites. At www.theaa.co.uk, for example, travellers can look up hotel and restaurant details in their destination towns in the UK. The AA guide has been assembled geographically so that a list of prospective venues can be browsed, together with a map of their location. This is dumb GIS, however, as the data is not dynamically linked to the map. In contrast, in-car routefinders use more sophisticated versions of GIS.
CACI’s well-known GIS product, InSite, has recently been launched on the Internet, following a highly-successful introduction in the US. At www.area data.co.uk, marketers can use a scaled-down version of the analytical tool to build area reports, which can then be downloaded.
CACI managing director Greg Bradford says: “It is like buying by the drink, rather than by the bottle,” as it allows business users to call off the reports they need, when they need them, for £99 each, rather than investing up to £20,000 for the full system. Using either the postcode or postal town, users can define a geographical area by size or drivetime, and then run analyses by up to 20 different social and geodemographic factors.
American users of the service already place about £30,000 in orders every month. While take-up in the first two months in the UK has been slower, Bradford expects it to grow rapidly. “We made the decision as a loss-leader investment, because we had to get out there as the first company in the UK to offer this type of service,” he says.
According to Bradford, developing the search tool for the consumer environment “is right up our alley. I’ve always asked, how can we take what we offer in business-to-business direct to the consumer? One route is providing information on homes.” He foresees applications whereby consumers will be able to generate reports on their neighbourhood, using Census and Acorn data.
This is exactly the type of information which will become available to consumers from June 1. From that date, Internet users can log onto www.homesight.co.uk and find a mix of free and paid-for information about properties and neighbourhoods. The site is the result of 12 months’ development work by Equifax and is being run as a joint venture with the Yellow Pages Website.
“GIS experts have spent a year putting together a range of information sources which we deliver in a number of ways,” says Equifax Property Services director Steve Naylor. Using the business model it developed with HPI – a consumer service which sells secondhand car buyer’s information on their prospective purchase – it will sell reports either directly off the Website or through its call centre.
One set of paid-for reports relates to subsidence risk. For £26, users can analyse a target postcode for clay-related subsidence. This uses a predictive model built by Cranfield University from government data on soil type.
In addition, the likelihood of radon gas can be identified, as can the possible impact of previous land uses. A data set built by Landmark is used which has overlaid the past 100 years of Ordnance Survey maps and can identify what was previously on the site of a property. This can help prospective purchasers to avoid the hidden danger of subsidence from mining.
“Most of the information is available somewhere, but not in an easy format to find or to use. It is also complex information – our information experts are using their GIS expertise to present it in a way that is meaningful,” says Naylor. While the Government was happy to site the Millennium Dome on an old gas works, for most homebuyers the dangers from pollution are of greater concern.
Among the free data on offer is the location of target house types, average house prices in a postcode, council tax bands, the geodemographic profile of a neighbourhood, and the five nearest pubs, doctors and dentists. School performance data will also be included.
Naylor says Equifax is talking to a range of companies, such as retailers and financial services providers, about using the data sets to support their own consumer marketing. “We are keen to work with other brands and channels. Marketers are very interested in it because moving home is a key time for making purchases,” he says.
Within a short space of time, Experian will also be announcing its Houseowner Report product. This GIS-based information service may be available across the Internet or through intranets operated by interested parties, such as estate agencies. It offers a complex array of 20 different types of report on a postcode which reveal important social, value or geographical trends in that area.
By tracking Land Registry data, for example, the system can show the total value of transactions per quarter compared with the national average. This reveals whether a location is going up or down in value. Social factors such as crime levels; weather and flooding data; subsidence risk; leisure activities; and the like can all be identified. Even the proportion of Mercedes, BMW or Jaguar owners in a postcode can be analysed, for those with serious car snobbery.
An Experian spokeswoman says: “The service will be available in conjunction with other organisations which have a strong consumer brand. We can tailor reports to specific needs and sell them for about £20 each. Until now, it has not been easy to deliver this information to consumers.”
This is one feature of the Internet which is helping the data owners break out of their existing markets. Distribution no longer becomes an issue, although branding and consumer confidence remains critical. But what the new generation of consumer-facing, Web-enabled GIS products will undoubtedly change is the level of consideration which goes into buying a home.
At the moment, the largest purchase of our lives is based almost entirely on detailed reporting on the inside of a house, and no information at all on the location around it. Profiling a target postcode will change all of that and empower house purchasers. The Web might be worldwide, but it is about to get very local indeed.