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How to Use GPS to Meet Your Customers Where They Are

Location-based targeting can help brand leaders hone in on a specific market.


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Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.

As a business leader, do you want to know what type of content a person will view or what kind of ad might resonate with them? If so, you’ll want to know where they are. Luckily, the GPS on their phone can tell you.

When you know a person’s location, you can dish up a non-skippable ad on their mobile device, which is an excellent way to promote brand awareness, boost your e-commerce sales or simply convey news.

Ad targeting by location is one way some users receive free internet access — or in some cases, the very cellphone through which they access the web. If someone is at an airport and about to travel, they’re typically happy to watch a non-skippable video on travel insurance in exchange for an hour of free Wi-Fi.

There’s a Time and Place for Everything 

I predict that this model will expand. For example, if a person is at a stadium watching a football or baseball game, the team has an excellent opportunity to plug its merchandise. Targeting by location gives the team a chance to increase its e-commerce and in-stadium merch sales, while the fan receives Wi-Fi access at no cost. Most will consider it a fair exchange. Take Levi’s Stadium as an example of this intersection of tech and entertainment.

By accepting the terms and service of free Wi-Fi at any given location, users are actively giving permission for their exact whereabouts to be tracked. The same applies to a number of mobile phone apps that follow the same protocol — Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram and so on.

While the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the EU considers the handling of personal data a new concept altogether, it acknowledges the great uncertainty created among those who are affected.

Web tracking is widely used by companies around the world, with Google at the forefront of market penetration. Through web tracking, online advertising becomes personalized based on the sensitive information gathered through the process — detailed personality profiles are created and have the potential to influence a user’s buying intentions.

The collection and later analysis of browser information, location and cookies is widespread once a user consents to access a given site or service. In this context, the GDPR legally defines consent as “any freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous indication of the data subject’s wishes by which he or she, by a statement or by a clear affirmative action, signifies agreement to the processing of personal data relating to him or her.”

This concept of using Wi-Fi to explicitly target users can also extend into targeting individuals using public transportation. For instance, if a person waits at the same bus stop every day, they might receive an ad for Uber or Lyft on their phone. The repetition of this targeted ad can effectively hardwire the idea into the user’s brain, leading them to potentially ditch the bus and opt for a rideshare option in the future.

Nor is that the only business that could target morning commuters, whether they’re adults on their way to the office or teenagers heading to school. Depending on their location and the direction they’re going, these individuals might start their day by seeing an ad from a nearby coffee chain or convenience store. These sellers can directly target likely buyers of their lattes and chewing gum through the savvy use of GPS.

The opportunities GPS presents for businesses are endless. A music streaming service could push the latest song to all teenagers’ phones in the afternoon when high schools are letting out and students are traveling home. In the evening, someone wandering through a city’s entertainment district could receive a discount offer from a local restaurant or an ad for a club.

Even desktop computers use Wi-Fi positioning, a GPS-like capability that allows businesses to serve up location-based content. When an older adult at the retirement home gets on Zoom to talk to their grandkids, they might be sent an ad for the AARP or a senior cruise.

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When Governments Get In on the Wi-Fi Action, Advertisers Can Capitalize

With more and more cities and even countries (hello, Estonia!) offering free public Wi-Fi, businesses will likely be quick to take advantage. I believe the name of the game will be offering free Wi-Fi worldwide, but users must first accept advertisements.

For example, in India, 4G network provider Jio captured the market by offering free calling plans, but it is well-known for its many pop-up ads. While users may regard these as an annoyance, they don’t outweigh the attraction of “free.”

Governments across the globe may find the same is true for public Wi-Fi. In the future, we could see free Wi-Fi for the entire world, with ads as the revenue generator.

Challenges and Considerations for Brand Leaders

Location-based targeting has been unarguably beneficial for advertisers and brand leaders worldwide — it hones in on a specific market, leading to more personalized messaging and a superior return on investment. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that having a user’s location is only half the battle. Your audience must be targeted effectively in order to see results.

A prime example of success is Whole Foods Market. Despite having fewer physical locations than competitors, Whole Foods used geo-fencing to communicate and reach shoppers near their retail locations. In doing so, Whole Foods reached a 4.69 percent post-click conversion rate, a massive success in comparison to the average of 1.43 percent in the United States.

Thinking about adding geolocation ad targeting to your marketing strategy? Start by engaging in a test campaign. Try a variety of ads unique to the locations you’re targeting. You might just find that the tactic leads to an increase in conversions.

As the world gradually opens up post-Covid, mobile users will once again be on the move. And this movement can yield the GPS data businesses need to offer consumers the products and services they want where and when they’re likely to want them. After a year that was economically catastrophic for many business owners, GPS could hold one key to recovery.


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