Location-Based Services: Ready for the Main Stream?

For years, we’ve used the same example when discussing location-based services: imagine you’re walking past a Starbucks and a coupon for a dollar off a latte is pushed to your mobile device just as you pass the store. Wow. An overused example, perhaps, but also a sign of things to come?

In the United States, the E911 mandate, requiring all carriers to deploy location infrastructure to determine the location of a mobile phone when subscribers dial 911, provides the needed infrastructure to locate a consumer beyond a simple cell phone ID location. Carriers like Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless are leveraging location technology and seeing success deploying navigational services for consumers and enterprise applications, such as fleet tracking. Why isn’t location-based mobile advertising at the forefront of our industry?

It makes sense. If we knew where consumers were, we would be able to offer highly targeted, enabling applications like mobile couponing. In fact, a few months ago I wrote about the location service application Sprint was deploying with the Luxor Hotel. When powering your phone on in the Las Vegas area, the hotel would send a text message asking if you’d like to begin the check-in process. Wow! The where in this case was the Las Vegas city limits, but this simple application shows the power location awareness adds to improve consumer experience and interaction with a brand.

Today, location infrastructure can locate a subscriber within 15 to 150 meters, depending on whether handset or network-based solutions have been deployed within the carrier network. This provides the location granularity that would help enable more targeted mobile marketing applications.

Why, then, is location still not mainstream for brand utilizations? Consumer privacy and permissions need resolution and have been debated for some time (don’t forget, many of us thought the big year for location services was 1999). Ensuring consumers appropriately provide permission to be located at the time and by the application that they’ve authorized will be a crucial issue to solve before mobile marketers can use location in broad mainstream campaigns. Rules around access to and protection of the consumer’s location information and location history will also be key.

Another necessary component to ensure ubiquitous location services will be location interoperability between carriers (similar to what we’ve developed for SMS (define) and, soon, MMS (define)). Passing or sharing a location between applications and networks will be key to moving location-based mobile campaigns across carriers forward.

Finally, something I mention in almost every column, let’s not forget mobile marketing applications require the consumer to opt in to participate. The example of a consumer being pushed an ad when walking by a store will only happen if that consumer previously signed up to receive the alerts. There may never be a mass push of ads to all consumers who walk by a Starbucks, with perhaps one exception. In Europe and Asia, there are small-scale location services applications using Bluetooth technology that will do exactly that: push marketing and ad messages to your device if Bluetooth is turned on and you’re in range of the application. Interesting but intrusive.

The where is only one component for location services. Imagine if we also knew the who, knowing details about consumers at any time: their interests, availability, and personal information. Together, the who and where would be a valuable combination for any mobile marketer. It would enable true consumer targeting based on the consumer’s exact preferences at the time and place the consumer is ready to interact with your brand. Wow!

There are exciting times ahead for location services, but what’s the exact timeline for some of these developments? For those of us who have been watching the location-service space for a while, the time may actually be getting closer.

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