What Does Your Location Say About You, Really?

“Honey, I’ve been lying

Honey, I’ve been jiving

And I am not signifying”         

—The Rolling Stones, “I’m Not Signifying”

In digital advertising, we take for granted the usefulness of data. It’s hard not to — data has been intrinsic to media since the days of Arthur Nielsen, and it now swirls around us in seeming superabundance. Every mouse click, purchase, video view, song listen, Starbucks visit can be tracked, targeted in real time, and saved for future use.

If it is possible to fetishize an abstraction, then Big Data is our fetish object du jour, the foundation of the premise that the more data, the better. Most media discussions don’t even linger on the topic, but quickly move on to questions of more tactical salience: methods of data ingestion, data origins (1st-party? DMP? Which DMP?), etc.



But it pays to remember that Big Data is usually dumb data (as I’m not the first to point out), and that more is not necessarily better. The key to doing great marketing with a particular type of data is to a) quickly understand what it is useful for and what not; b) figure out what else it can most usefully be combined with.

A case in point: location analytics. In the early days of mobile programmatic advertising, many of us in the space (myself included) became obsessed with a brand new type of data being offered up in bid streams: device location. It turned out that between, between 5% and 20% of mobile bid requests contained actual latitude / longitude data.

This wasn’t your garden-variety IP address mappingm as happens with Zip codes on desktop browsers, but actual device lat / lon, sometimes written out to 6 decimal points! Here is some simple math to illustrate how ludicrously precise that seemed: if you divide the Earth’s circumference (40,000 km) by 360 degrees, then one degree equals 111 km. Taken to the sixth decimal point, that is 0.11 meters, or about 4 inches. 4 inches!

So location data was not only available in scale, it was precise — and therefore perfect for digital marketing. And many smart people wondered whether we could connect the dots between the places a person visited and the things they were likely to buy.  

For example, Person A goes to Equinox gym in the morning, Le Pain Quotidian for lunch, and Whole Foods in the evening. Is that person more likely to buy a new luxury car than Person B, who goes to Equinox gym → Burger King → and Pathmark?

From a data science perspective, figuring this out entails analyzing a ton of passive, continuously-updated data, identifying meaningful patterns within that data, and testing the resulting hypotheses with actual campaigns. In other words, a lot of work. Unless you’re making Palantir-sized revenue, was boiling this particular data ocean worth the slightly higher CPMs?

Not really, as it turns out.  

Taken in isolation, an audience’s patterns of location visitation reveal few secrets that the brand advertiser couldn’t already get from existing demo research. After all, mapping a particular place on the map to a particular demographic is nothing new; out-of-home and terrestrial radio advertising have been doing it for decades, and census tract data is public and mostly free.

The beauty of location targeting lies deeper down the funnel. Mobile location can be considered a new type of cookie which -- like a cookie – has an effective expiration date and is most useful when connected to other types of data. For example:

  1. Proximity to other known devices: e.g. this iPad, iPhone and laptop frequently access the same qualified (usually Wifi) IP address, and but almost no other devices do. This is the basis of cross-device targeting and sophisticated methods of device graphing developed by companies like Dstillery, TapAd and Drawbridge.
  2. Physical signals: in-store visits. PlaceIQ brilliantly coined a new metric, Place Visit Rate (or “PVR”) to describe actual foot traffic resulting at a specific location after that same audience was exposed to a mobile ad. Connecting just these two events, within a certain time window, is extraordinarily useful.
  3. Offline purchase activity: this is, of course, the holy grail. Did the user who saw that mobile ad for a Samsung TV when they were 0.5 miles from BestBuy actually go into that BestBuy and purchase something? And even better, did that person also see the :30 spot I ran on prime-time cable over the previous two weeks?

This last example is the area of greatest interest to me in 2015, because it encompasses a huge swath of media -- programmatic buying, digital out-of-home, addressable TV, offline retail data,  and more nascent technologies like iBeacons and NFC (which, despite low adoption in the US so far, will see a big uptick over the next two years, thanks partly to Apple).

Connecting these dots between offline and online, physical and digital, isn’t simply about Big Data. It’s about Smart Data – and having the discipline to know the difference.
2 comments about "What Does Your Location Say About You, Really?".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, January 22, 2015 at 10:41 a.m.

    Excellent piece, Josh.

  2. John Grono from GAP Research, January 22, 2015 at 3:26 p.m.

    I loved the point about precision to 11 cm/4 inches. It's what I'd call a 'vanity of false precision'. When I worked on Australia's Out-of-Home audience measurement system, one the most time-consuming parts was getting accurate geo-location of the advertising faces. Each site was geo-located by its owner and by one of its competitive site owners (to ensure 'no cheating'). When we started mapping the co-ordinates for out test market of Brisbane keen interest was shown in the 'marquee' signs on the major access roads to Brisbane Airport. We ended up with a few sites missing. Expanding the map out, we found them - located on the runways! This wasn't just a 'Brisbane thing'. In Sydney we ended up with a few airport signs in Botany Bay. Moral of the story: sometimes these devices produce rogue readings, so measure multiple times, and then plot them all so they pass the "this makes sense" test. (By the way we wrote a nifty app that allowed us in-field to 'drag' the sign to where it should be and then redo the co-ordinates). Cheers.

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