Still Place for optimism?

Yesterday we attended our fourth Place Conference, held in NYC a little further uptown than our first Place back in 2014. Back then the conference had a strong focus on all the latest mobile location and proximity technologies that were expected to revitalise retail. There was an air of optimism around the Bluetooth beacon and similar innovations which held much promise to deliver delightful, contextual, brick-and-mortar experiences for a broad consumer base increasingly expecting personalisation.

At the 2018 edition, it didn’t take long to realise that this optimism had not simply faded, but completely vanished. The first and only mention of a beacon did not occur until the fourth presentation: a panel entitled What Nobody Will Tell You about Location Data. And what did the panel tell us?

Baseline location data is a commodity now.

Indeed, that fact was affirmed in the previous presentations and those to come. The state of the art in location analytics and proximity marketing has become the acquisition, interpretation and application of baseline location data from mobile phones.

Wait, what’s baseline location data and how is it obtained from mobile phones?

Curiously enough, that subject was never directly addressed. But in short, the primary data source consists of a latitude/longitude paired with a device identifier, gathered from mobile devices under their terms of service. These data points are enriched by companies who probabilistically associate the identifier with a household, demographic (or more!), and the geocoordinates with addresses and/or an individual’s journey. This commodity is then applied to business decisions or to pushing the right ad to the right consumer at the right time and place.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Thomas Walle of Unacast made the precision (pun intended) that data quality is not yet a commodity. This was affirmed by the chief data scientist of Outfront, a leading out-of-home (OOH) media owner with countless digital billboards, questioning the reliability of “polygon visits” as source data based on his experience with multiple vendors.

Only two hours into the conference, as the panel progressed, I was already distraught, painfully reminded of the above slide which we had presented at a similar conference two years previous. Entrenched was the “old way” of bombarding the consumer to drive a response, the innovation being smarter bombs homing in on fainter signals. The term “surveillance” entered the discourse and was not outright dismissed. Were we collectively comfortable with that?

But, it all turned around when the panel was followed by a presentation entitled The Future of Digital Identity: Countdown to 2020 in which Neil Sweeney of Freckle IoT promptly declared that

a data revolution is coming.

Calling into question the status quo, he argued that there is currently an inverted value proposition for the consumer, progressive government regulation (GDPR in Europe and soon CCPA in the US) is becoming law, and scandals such as Cambridge Analytica have unveiled the uncomfortable truth behind advertising business models. In short, don’t expect our suggestion to Facebook following last year’s Place Conference to become a priority anytime soon!

What Neil proposed was a complete reversal of the flow of information and the ownership of personal data. And with the Killi app, he invited the audience to take the first step right then and there, opting in to select specific pieces of personal information that they would like to share with brands in exchange for money.

It was as if our complementary slide from that previous conference had suddenly appeared! Here was the consumer “advertising” their intent to brands and businesses through their presence and the information they chose to share, expecting an appropriately personalised response in return.

Since reelyActive’s founding in 2012, we’ve championed this paradigm for the flow of information. Coincidentally, our most watched video, in which we present this paradigm by reversing the flow of information of a beacon, will tomorrow celebrate its fifth anniversary! It’s not difficult to imagine this implemented in the Killi app to facilitate real-time hyperlocal exchanges of information like we demonstrated with our own reelyApp.

Whether a micro-DMP like Killi or rather a Bank of Personal Data will eventually prove to be successful is of course up for debate, as few attendees seemed threatened by the imminence of a data revolution. Nonetheless — and reassuringly — most attendees seemed to agree that such a paradigm, which fosters transparency and inclusivity and moves the industry Beyond People-as-a-Product, is much closer to being the right model, even if most would argue it is not yet a realistic model. In any case, the technology is ready. The trillion-dollar question is whether the vendors will ready themselves to flip if and when that critical time comes?

Can you measure real-world behaviour using tools designed for the web?

Google Analytics for the real world.   Several companies have self-identified as such. We ourselves have written a blog post entitled Google Analytics for the Physical World. But what happens when you literally run real-world behaviour data through tools designed for the web?

Notman House Google Analytics

The above screenshot shows what happens when we do exactly that, using Notman House in our native Montréal as the test subject. The dashboard (shared here) was created using Google Data Studio based on data from Google Analytics (GA), industry-standard tools for measuring behaviour on the web. The source data, however, has nothing to do with the web.

Since 2012, we’ve had our infrastructure deployed at Notman House. Each of the orange dots in the above image represents one of our sensors: there are three on each floor, plus one in the café (not shown). These ten sensors detect, among other things, the Bluetooth signals of smartphones and wearables carried by the occupants of the house. Our Pareto SaaS relays this real-time location data to GA.

Steps are clicks

In web parlance, we’ve modelled Notman House as ten web pages with users being not the humans themselves, but rather their Bluetooth-emitting smartphones and wearables.

An obvious shortcoming is the fact that many people keep Bluetooth disabled on their phone, while conversely, an increasing number of people are carrying multiple Bluetooth devices: uniquely counting each human is impractical. But when you’re capturing 1000+ daily sessions, the trends certainly pervade as we’ll now show!

Hourly “occupancy” analytics

Notman hourly analytics

The daily occupancy cycle of Notman House is consistent week over week (dark blue vs. light blue bars), and concentrated between the hours of 8am and 7pm (graph is GMT, hence shifted 5 hours from local time), both of which agree with observation.

Sessions per page

Notman session analytics

User sessions were far more likely to include the Café and the 3rd Floor West, which is consistent with observation as both are event spaces which routinely attract the most occupants.

Sessions by device

Notman device breakdown

Similar to how web analytics can be split into desktop/tablet/mobile and browser type, Bluetooth packets often include information about the device type or brand (see Sniffypedia) which may be correlated with user demographics. Indeed we’ve observed seemingly characteristic device distributions based on region and venue (ex: office/store/school).

The verdict?

Can you measure real-world behaviour using tools designed for the web?   With little effort, using only the basic functionality of GA, we were able to extract the three highlighted metrics, each of which effectively captures the behaviour of occupants of physical spaces. Imagine the potential when leveraging the extensive functionality of tools such as GA.

Imagine as a retailer creating a Data Studio dashboard which compares e-commerce and in-store behaviour side-by-side.

Now imagine the additional granularity and insights when both people and assets are individually identifiable by opting-in with a mobile app or carrying an inexpensive Bluetooth beacon.

Time and again the web has shown that those who measure outperform. Not only can you measure real-world behaviour using the tools of the web, history suggests that, sooner than later, you definitely should!

Proximity in its Place

The 2016 Place Conference brought together the brands, retailers, agencies and technology companies pushing the envelope of cross-platform proximity marketing, indoor experiences and location analytics. We feel that organiser Greg Sterling of The LSA, in his introduction, most eloquently summarised in two slides why local matters:

Digital vs. Local

While we spend an increasing amount of time online, we still spend the majority of our money locally, close to work and home. The following is a brief summary of our takeaways from the conference.

Still educating, still adopting

“How many people here have had a real-world beacon experience?”

In a room of a hundred, a mere handful of hands were raised. This hammered home the point that although proximity experiences currently receive all the attention, the reality is that three years after the launch of the iBeacon with iOS 7, and with over 8 million proximity sensors deployed globally today according to Proxbook, the concept is still in its infancy. Instead, it was the presentations on location analytics, a less-glamorous subject, which boasted tangible, measurable results.

Erin Kienast of OMD, who successfully ran such a campaign with McDonald’s, said she spends a lot of time educating local media agencies about the power of location, and how they can use the data. Our experience has been the same. Indeed, while the national agencies may have the edge in education, the local agencies still outweigh them in terms of volume. Education precedes adoption, and a few turnkey solutions certainly wouldn’t hurt either.

We’re not making it easy

“We’re making it really hard for the CMO today” said Pehr Luedtke of Vanassis. “How do the CMOs understand the crazy landscape of location tech?”

Greg Sterling affirmed, “technology companies add complexity beyond what a human operator can be expected to handle.” We know. As a technology company, we’re as guilty of that as any of our peers that were in the room, but we’re working hard to improve. Our approach has been to approach retailers within a partner ecosystem where we master the location technology and our partners individually master the experience, marketing communications, change management, analytics and such. Technology companies should leave end-user-interaction to the experts.

New channel, new offer

“You can’t push the same offer through a digital channel” said Jay Hawkinson of SIM Partners. “You need to make a compelling location-based offer.”

Indeed it doesn’t make sense to make all the effort to meet the customer where they are, only then to serve them up a generic offer. But it certainly does take additional consideration to create the most relevant offer, and marketers need to be prepared. In our retail deployment experience, the impact of even a modestly tailored offer versus a generic offer was orders of magnitude greater. But our partners still had to push to make it happen!

Location accuracy: who cares?

Google doesn’t. Aisle411 does.

Place 2016: Location Accuracy

One can argue that they’re both right. In the case of absolute location, the traditional latitude-longitude measurement, accuracy dictates granularity. And for Aisle411, 30cm is the right granularity. However, in the case of semantic location, championed by both Google and ourselves, all that really matters is what’s nearby to the user. In other words it’s simply relative.

A light bulb just went off

“How many advertisers does it take to change a [connected] LED light bulb?” joked Google’s Frank van Diggelen.

Place 2016: Connected Lighting

Both Philips and Acuity shed light (pun intended) on the fact that one thing is for sure indoors: we’re always near a light. Internet-connected LED lighting overcomes the three challenges faced by location technology:

  1. persistent power
  2. consistent connectivity
  3. necessity of infrastructure

The combination of smartphones and connected lighting promises accurate location via beacons, WiFi, computer vision, magnetics, inertial and visible light communication (VLC). Curiously excluded from the list, however, was Bluetooth as a real-time location system (RTLS), essentially beacons in reverse.

Are people beacons too?

If smartphones act as beacons (as many wearables already do), then connected lighting could identify and locate the people carrying them. We first demonstrated the concept three years ago, using our own connected sensor infrastructure. Last week, to celebrate that anniversary, we proclaimed that The Physical Web just got Personal.

“Can people be considered places? In other words, can a person’s smartphone act as a beacon?” we asked Chandu Thota, Director of Engineering at Google. The answer, as we expected, was no, that’s not how Google sees it. Thota confirmed that we were not alone in advancing applications where the smartphone “advertises” itself to its surroundings. But the company behind Android, Eddystone and The Physical Web (at least) currently sees the smartphone exclusively as a receiver of what is nearby to its user.

Is the industry abusively smartphone-centric?

The smartphone is an incredible innovation which has revolutionised how brands can interact with their customers. Nonetheless, it is easy to argue, as one attendee did, that imagining those customers walking through stores with their eyes glued to their smartphones is downright dangerous! Case in point, this video.

Place 2016: Smartphone-Centricity

What we’ve heard from brick-and-mortar retailers is that they want to emphasise the human experience of shopping, aided by the tools pioneered by online retailers. For us, the smartphone-centric approach is at odds with that vision, instead emphasising the digital experience within a physical context.

Our hope for the next Place Conference is to see case studies of CMO-friendly end-to-end solutions which deliver delightful experiences with tangible results all the while keeping the smartphone in the users pocket to the extent possible. See you there!