How to Leverage Mobile for Customer Engagement: Part 2: Location Based Services

Many business could take advantage (or better advantage) of Location Based Services (LBS) by understanding how location is or is not relevant to a customer in the context of the nature of the business with the customer. Some businesses just aren’t that suited for direct use of a person’s location in a way that adds obvious value, others should be leveraging it to the max but may not understand how or why.

To start, a brief review (in my words) of some of the facets of LBS and then we’ll delve into how and when these can apply to some business examples.

Wikipedia defines Location Based Services (LBS) as:

an information or entertainment service, accessible with mobile devices through the mobile network and utilizing the ability to make use of the geographical position of the mobile device

I would say that’s actually a fairly narrow view of LBS. I will define a LBS as:

any service or activity that utilizes the geographical position of a person to generate or alter the service’s interactions with that personThe massive benefit of leveraging a mobile device with LBS is that the device itself can (usually) contribute the location of the person without the person having to do so manually. When you remove a manual step from a process, generally the usage of that process increases — such is the case with location discoverability and LBS.

When a service uses a person’s location, there’s a decision to be made about the scope of the person’s location that is relevant. Think about if I called you on the phone right now and asked you: “Where are you?”. What would you answer? Would you say ‘home’ or ‘work’ or ‘in my car’ or ‘Ottawa, Canada, North America’ (where I happen to be right now)? When you’re thinking about leveraging LBS for your business, you need to think about what scope of an answer you need from a person to add the value to your service/business to meet your primary goals and what kind of answer you would like from a person to add accessory value or meet secondary goals.

Here’s an example: You’re running an online store and you are legally only allowed to ship packages within your own country. You need to know what country the customer is in to determine if you can even do business with them, but you’d like to know their city so you can estimate shipping charges.

That’s a contrived example (obviously) for illustration but you get the point. People are sensitive about revealing information about themselves and the more specific the information, the more conservative they are about revealing the info. If you don’t need to know a person’s exact latitude and longitude (within the technical limitations of their ability or their device’s ability to provide that information) then don’t ask for it. Communicate what you are actually asking for (“Would you like to share your location with Business X?” is going to get less of a response than “Would you like to share the Country you are currently in with Business X?”) and implement your own communication strategies to the user before (ideally) you ask them to share their location information — you’ll get a lot more people sharing it with you.

Once you’ve determined what location information you need, you must make a technical decision about how you are going to gather the information. This choice is something most companies give FAR less importance to than it’s due. There are a lot of differences in how you obtain a user’s location that can greatly influence what you can do with it and how communicative you are with the user.

GPS – the most common method of accessing location information is via the GPS satellites and built-in GPS chips on mobile devices. This can be a slow and battery draining process to get the location information and sometimes is not possible due to issues in the GPS signal. However, it does provide a very accurate reading of longitude and latitude for a person.

A-GPS (Assisted GPS) – the resulting information you get from A-GPS is the same as with GPS but the time to obtain the location is much, much faster. You can read on Wikipedia more about the technical details of A-GPS but basically, it’s faster and more reliable that GPS but just as accurate. The problem is that some mobile carriers pay a fee every time an A-GPS query is made. If your application or services uses A-GPS a lot, you may find that carriers are reluctant to promote it since it costs them more money.

Cell Towers – basically you find out the IDs of the cellular towers the phone is communicating with and lookup their geo-locations in a database. This is a more old-school method from before GPS was so widely integrated in phones but provided a reasonably up-to-date database of towers, you can get a location that is within some miles/kilometers of the person’s actual location — which may be fine for some applications.

Current Carrier – the carrier the device is currently accessing may provide you with the ability to at least narrow down the country the person is in based upon knowing which countries each carrier operates in. For example, you’ll only be on the TELUS network in Canada, and the Sprint network in the USA.

Social Networks – by having users connect to Twitter or Facebook or other social networks with authentication APIs, you can leverage location data that is collected during the user’s interactions with the network. For example, if the user has location turned on for their Twitter account, you can look for the last Twitter post they made and scrape the location off that. If the post was from days ago, it’s probably not as useful but if it was only minutes or seconds ago then you can see a good estimate of the user’s location.

Think of other creative sources of a person’s location-based upon the settings and information available on their mobile device or the information they share with other services.

Leveraging a person’s location to add value to their interaction with your business is the step where many business falter. Do you really want to deliver a coupon to someone when they’re already at your store? Coupons should be able getting people in your store and rewarding customers for repeat purchases, those goals are more effective when leveraged at times when the customer is not at your store.

Simple coupons are just the current ‘hot’ application for location-based services but think about looking at a customer’s location over all and even history of location and see if you can find applications. Maybe if you see they visit a competitor more often that your store you can offer them better deals. Maybe when they’re near your store at a time when they are likely to want your product (e.g. 11:30am for Fast Food) you can engage with them and they’ll be more responsive than offering them a deal after they just ate lunch.

For other business services, the location of the user’s friend group relative to that user might even be more important. The ways you can look at a person’s location and apply it to your business are not limited to simple, isolated applications like basic coupons. Think broader and think how you can combine LBS with other topics I’m covering in this series.

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