For years, mobile geo-fencing has sounded a bit (to use the technical marketing term for behaviorally triggered advertising) "creepy" to many observers. Users don’t like being reminded of the obvious fact, after all, that their cell phones make them eminently trackable. We know this on some abstract level that we like to keep abstract. When our location triggers something on our phones, it seems to remind some people of the dark potential of the surveillance economy.
I suspect this unease will dissipate as consumers start reaping the benefits of geo-fenced opportunities. I am getting a dose of it myself lately as I pile up offers into my iO Passbook and now let the RetailMeNot app use my location. Whenever I am near a Walgreens, for instance, Passbook pings me if I have a coupon stored. So does my ValPak app of local offers. Generally. I let these coupon alerts pass by because I have them active mainly to test the experience of geo-fencing. But then the platform finally hit me in my softest spot --books.
I got a glimpse of the effect of this on my shopping habits last week when I pulled into the parking lot of the local mall and my phone woke up with a cash register "ka-ching" sound effect I didn’t even know it had. It was RetailMeNot offering to push to me all of the active digital coupons it had for the stores at this particular mall.
Topmost among the offers was a 30% coupon for any item at Barnes & Noble, my home away from home. I was intending just to do my usual browse at B&N until that pretty meaty discount emerged at just the right time, at just the right place and for just the right consumer. Suddenly I was on a mission -- how best to make use of this limited-time offer and extract the most value by combining this coupon with my B&N 10% member loyalty card. I was transformed into the pro-am consumer, the kind of coupon-wielding, deal-calculating super-shopper I am so unlike in all other respects.
I did end up with a massive bargain, by the way. A $60 DVD set I had been coveting for a while happened to be 50% off that week, which was then combined at checkout with this 30% discount and my member card to get it down to under $19. Like the most successful promotions, this was a “deal” that saved me money by getting me to spend money I might not already have been spending.
But it was also one of those rare instances when the promise of mobile technology to target, push, and personalize just-in-time offers demonstrates its potential. This is the kind of experience that converts consumers into believing in the technology and seeing the trade-off between giving up personal data (my location) for real value. It also illustrates how mobile media can serve as a kind of personalized signage for any location. It has the ability to let a place announce itself and its value propositions in highly targeted ways.
Did I think once about the "creepiness" of my phone and an app knowing where I was and pushing nearby offers to my most personal device? I did not. If anything, I thought it was pretty cool -- and it left me wondering what I might be missing if I had not activated the geo-fence.