Commentary

On The Bridge Of Convenient And Creepy

I saw a recent interview with Jonathon Rosen, business development director for WirelessWERX in Directions Magazine about real-time indoor location analytics. Rosen's company places sensors around a store that communicate with customers' mobile phones anonymously to collect data. The data is processed in real-time, and the store ends up with heat maps based on traffic, the path the consumer took around the store, and more. It all made me think: when does cool and convenient turn creepy? 

Recently, Berg Insight predicted that location-based advertising will reach $8.5 billion (up from $688 million) by 2017. Clearly, the idea of knowing where a consumer physically is interests advertisers, but it brings up the all-important topic of privacy. The privacy issue has become increasingly important, and bringing location-based, real-time ad tech to the real world could be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel's back.

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I can already see a scenario playing out in my head. I'm looking for some new clothes at Old Navy. I walk into the t-shirt section, and a sensor picks up the fact that I have an iPhone. My Amazon app knows that I recently looked for some green shirts, and that information is passed to the sensor. A small digital screen in the t-shirt section lights up and reads, "The green shirts are to the left!" Heck, maybe the screen has some eye tracker technology and it will know when I'm looking at it, too. "Yeah, you! The green shirts are to the left!"

The location tech as described by WirelessWERX (drawing heat maps, traffic paths, etc.) doesn't do what the above scenario says. It also doesn't seem like an invasion of privacy - it simply helps retailers organize based on how their customers shop. However, how different is the hypothetical scenario from signing into Facebook and having someone programmatically buy an ad telling me to buy their green shirts? Why not just take that same concept and bring it into the real world?

Even with existing privacy concerns, users find comfort in hiding behind a screen. My hypothetical scenario is similar to how display ads work, but bringing real-time targeting tech offline would have people crying foul. They would not longer have the screen to hide behind, the option to delete cookies, or the ability to simply go offline. They would feel exposed. It might seem like a good option for digital out-of-home advertisers or retailers, but doing so would cross the bridge from convenient to creepy.

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