Geo targeted ads: Are they creeping out your audience?

Geo targeting technology has been expanding - both on accuracy and availability - since we all started walking around with computers in our pockets. Thank you Steve Jobs for the invention of the most revolutionary product of the first decade of the 21st Century (PS: I still miss you!).

For marketers, geo targeted campaigns are a fantastic way to generate conversions and offers an almost unlimited resource for different experiments, as expertly outlined by Neil Patel on this blog post. From experimenting with language, and currency to promoting relevant offers to people in your immediate physical vicinity and allowing you to customize your content to be tailored specifically to your viewers.

At Growth Guild, we use geo targeting for clients with brick-and-mortar retail locations to increase foot traffic, to target attendees on-site at an event or conference, to target zip codes of residents looking for a specific service or product, to recruit leads within a target area and much more.

The common denominator - in my experience - is that depending on the language you use, some people get a little creeped out. The observant ones will comment on the post (on Facebook and Instagram, for example) saying: How do you know I am standing on this corner? Or how do you know my flight is delayed? How do you know my car has a flat tire? Mind you, they are typing and posting these comments from the same piece of technology that is telling us their exact geographic position without knowing. They are observant enough to know we’re watching their movements and targeting them, and to point it out back at us and laugh about it, but that’s it. Sometimes, a lot of the times actually, they know they are being targeted and will still convert by purchasing the product, or filling out the form.

It has been well documented that companies like Target have been able to track down shopping patterns to the point where they were able to predict someone’s pregnancy, that Google knows who your best friends are (even if you don’t), and Facebook can classify an audience as “intending to travel.” But, honestly, there is a chasm between knowing at a conscious level that these companies are tracking people’s every move (online and in the real world) and understanding that this means they are tracking YOU.

As an early netizen (I might be aging myself here a bit), I have long given away any hope that my internet activities are private. Whether in the privacy of my home, at a public place, or in my employer’s offices, anybody can have access to my internet activities at any time. From the NSA, to your friendly Russian or Chinese hacker, Nigerian princes, those people who hacked Experian, the ones that stole the Target credit card information or the Home Depot account holders; I’ve found my personal information on so many “dark” databases that I simply froze my credit, locked down access to all my social media and hope for the best on a regular basis.

“Normal” people, though, the ones who are casual users or don’t care to spend too much time thinking about what their phone or their social media account can say about them to the outside world, do get a little rattled when one of my ads suggests a refreshing beverage when they are walking out of the gym, or to seek out a private suite inside the airport terminal when their flight gets delayed for the third time.

As a marketer, I want to say “but it works!” as an explanation/excuse/reason for doing it. As a parent, I want to say “how do you carry around a piece of equipment you don’t understand and how do you not know the ramifications of social media on your privacy?” And this is, in a nutshell, the ethical conundrum I find everyday. You do get presented with terms and conditions that you quickly scroll through and click I ACCEPT before you unleash yourself onto a new app, so technically we do have permission to assume the state of your uterus, or your next flight, in order to sell you our product. While, at the same time, as humans we should care more about bridging that knowledge gap and making sure everybody understands that by hitting the I ACCEPT button you’re not only gaining access to a tasteful range of Instagram filters, but also allowing corporations to peer into your inner sanctum.

That’s what the European Union intended with GDPR, to remind the consumer on every single website that it might be collecting information about what you do/don’t do online and use it to target you with customized messaging. And this is why Google has been hit with a historic fine. These fines are precisely for allowing the personalized targeting of ads to people who “were "not sufficiently informed" about how Google collected data to personalize advertising.” Also in trouble with the EU over privacy concerns? Amazon, Apple, Spotify and YouTube (owned by Google).

Maybe the EU is on the right track. Maybe geo targeting, and all the other range of personalized targeted advertising is crossing an imaginary line, and in 20 years we will look back and study it as we study German Political Propaganda from the 1930s and 1940s today; and shake our heads and say “how did they manipulate people this way?” I am, as a student of technology, very academically interested in seeing the outcome of this debate.

After dumping my thoughts on the subject here, my conclusion is: geo targeting can feel creepy and like it is invading your space. Maybe you should read the terms and conditions of your latest download, or research how to manage your geolocation options within your devices so it doesn’t happen again. Here is a handy guide on how to disable geolocation on your browser. And here’s a guide to disable geotagging on your phone. But, like the article warns, be careful what you wish for. Your favorite app (and your GPS) require geotagging to work, and the authorities require it to find you, or for features like “find my Phone” to work. So, maybe for now, the ad you find creepy is worth ignoring.

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