Every day, millions of miniature computers ride along in our pockets and purses as we go about our daily tasks. From the grocery store to the office and back home, our smartphones are little beacons that track our movements, whether we like it or not. According to a recent survey conducted by The Manifest, our phones help marketers get their location-based ads to nearly everyone.
More than 720 U.S. residents participated in The Manifest's survey after admitting they allow various applications on their iOS and Android devices to track their real-time locations. Of those respondents, just 15% said they "rarely or never see ads" that reference their location.
Sudeep Srivastava, CEO of Appinventiv, a mobile app development company in India, said accessing that kind of information has allowed his company to reach out to potential customers in a way that traditional advertising methods don't.
"By knowing [the customer's] location, I can get to know what kind of facilities they might have, what kind of connections they might have, and what kind of access to systems they might have," he said. "Based on that, I can show them some offers, some coupons, some products."
While it may be easy to blame that kind of targeted marketing on our phones' tracking features, researchers found a lot of location data is freely given away by users.
Users trade location data for convenience
When downloading a new app, users generally have to give permission for those apps to access various parts of the phone's hardware. For example, if an app needs to take photos, it will ask to be able to use the device's camera(s).
Generally, it's up to end users to decide which permissions they grant on an app-to-app basis. Yet, according to the survey, approximately 66% of people are "comfortable with apps auto-completing their location" rather than having to type out their exact whereabouts. Just 7% of respondents said they were comfortable with that feature, with the remaining individuals saying they were neutral to the feature.
Autocomplete and predictive text features aren't hard to find. A quick visit to Google on a smartphone is the perfect example of the location-based feature. Rather than having users type out long questions, Google's autocomplete function kicks in, adding predictive text that the company estimates reduces typing by 25% and saves 200 years of typing per day among internet users.
"[People] like to have predictive text, and the more you use the app, the better we get it, because we have more data, and we're able to better predict what the user might want to do," said Taylor Bond, vice president of client experience at MindSea, a mobile app development company based in Canada. "This has become the standard."
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Social media gives advertisers wealth of location-based data
In a world where social media has made sharing the minutiae of our lives with friends and family the norm, it's easy to see how marketers can gather location data from apps like Facebook and Instagram to target specific individuals.
Geotagging our photos and posts is often the default, but users also love to tag their locations on posts, since doing so regularly increases interest in a post. On Instagram, geotagged posts generally see a 79% spike in engagement.
Although 91% of Americans feel they have no control over how their personal information is collected and used, they are still willing to give away their location data. According to The Manifest's research, 79% of people said they've used geotags to share their location on social media, though just 18% of people said they "always" tag their location and 24% do so occasionally.
While tagging your posts with your current location can be fun, experts regularly warn against doing so, since malicious actors can figure out when you're not home. For advertisers, knowing a person's location allows them to reach out to that person. If a business's social media page is tagged with its location, any user who starts tagging their location can see that page pop up in a list of possible locations.
Location-based advertising is very effective
Since autocomplete and predictive text based on a user's location is used extensively on smartphones, it makes sense that 96% of survey respondents reported seeing an ad that referenced their location. According to research by New Epsilon, location-based marketing is extremely effective, as approximately 80% of users said they were more likely to make a purchase from a company that offered a personalized experience.
Despite proximity marketing's efficacy, just 17% of respondents said they found targeted advertising ethical in a separate study released earlier this year.
Targeted marketing through location-based tech naturally raises ethical concerns. According to The Manifest's research, a large percentage of respondents (38%) said they'd accidentally shared their location with someone and only realized that they'd done so after the fact. Regardless, only 46% of that group said they stopped sharing their location but kept the app on their phone anyway. Similarly, 40% of respondents said they continued to share their locations through the app. Most people said they weren't worried about sharing their locations, since the "benefits of the app outweigh the potential dangers" of sharing the location data with a stranger.
"From personal experience, there are times where I've granted permission to an app, and I maybe don't recall that I have or why I did," said Adam Fingerman, founder of mobile app development company ArcTouch. "I think Facebook is a good example. Often when you're posting a picture, it can tag it with the location. You might not realize it's doing it. You might forget that it's doing it. I think probably that happens to people a lot of times."