The Pokémon Go phenomenon has prompted a lot of handwringing over how the trendy creature-grabbing app game tracks mobile location data. Yet, while the game has made the intersection of our digital and physical worlds more tangible than ever, there are already a handful of companies specializing in mobile location data collection, aggregation and distribution -- and those firms are building viable businesses by sharing that data with hundreds of ad industry players.
Take location data firm Placed, which provides data representing consumer visits to physical store locations. Its client list has grown to 190 from 80 last summer and includes media firms such as Conde Nast and Accuweather, agencies including IPG Mediabrands and DigitasLBi, and cross-device ad targeting and measurement firms such as BlueCava.
Placed gets billions of location data points from mobile apps that consumers agree to let track their devices in exchange for things like premium in-app features, gift cards or charity donations, including Give2Charity and Placed-owned Panel App. Placed tells Panel App users that data gathered through the app is provided to partners in aggregate and not available at the individual level to third parties and not used to target ads.
Placed's panel includes more than 2.3 million people, up from half a million in Febuary 2015, according to the company. Because the company requires opt-in permission for location data use when people install partner apps and when they are first opened, Placed considers this a double opt-in, allowing the company "to measure data all on a first party basis, proactively pulling down data based on its models, with direct access to GPS, WiFi, cell location, along with sensors like accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass," said David Shim, founder and CEO of Placed.
Accuweather has used Placed data for a few months to measure the effect that the ads it carries have on in-store visits. "Advertisers, they've been wanting to see the return on their investment," said Melissa Kuper VP of ad sales product at Accuweather.
Digital ad behemoths Google and Facebook have also introduced capabilities for measuring the effect of ads on their platforms on in-store visits. The companies use their own location data, generated on their platforms, to gauge store visits for ad clients.
Vikas Gupta, director of marketing at location data firm Factual, believes that Google and Facebook's moves have influenced other companies.
Everyone needs a location story
"The level of interest in location this year is multiples of what it was last year and multiples of what it was the year before," said Mr. Gupta. Factual provides data on about 95 million business locations and points of interest for mapping services, and to advertiser clients looking to build audience profiles for location-based ad targeting. The company provides its data to Apple and Facebook, and added Uber to its client list last month.
Companies in the mobile advertising space "need to have a location story," Mr. Gupta said. "You can either build or you can partner."
The popularity of Pokémon Go has raised alarms about its tracking capabilities, higlighting continuing concern about corporations' access to mobile location information that could potentially be linked to individual consumers.
Regulators are watching location trackers already. Just last month the Federal Trade Commission settled with mobile ad firm InMobi over allegations that it tracked hundreds of millions of consumers' locations without permission and violated child privacy rules. The FTC's complaint said InMobi followed device locations even when people, sometimes children using apps geared towards kids, disabled tracking or never consented via a particular app in the first place.
But privacy questions haven't stopped consumers from using Pokémon Go or other data-gleaning apps, suggested Kirsten McMullen, chief privacy officer at mobile ad firm 4Info. Advertisers are also moving forward, carefully, to take advantage of new capabilities without seeming to intrude.
Marketers and consumers have both become "way more comfortable with location data being used," Ms. McMullen said, although she also added, "Consumers remain largely unaware of it."
Updated industry guidelines for location data use introduced last year by the Interactive Advertising Bureau and Network Advertising Initiative, a self-regulatory group of ad-tech companies such as real-time bidding platforms and data providers, has helped ease marketers' minds, according to Ms. McMullen.
The location data labyrinth
Another source of location data, mobile beacons that communicate with mobile devices, are multiplying like so many video game monsters. As these and other proximity-location-tracking sensors proliferate in retail and other business locations across the globe, the location information they collect is being shared throughout the digital ad ecosystem.
Oslo-based Unacast connects data from beacons and proximity trackers to ad platforms from companies including Lotame, Mediamath and Oracle to enable digital ad retargeting based on location data.
Last week, Freckle, which gathers location data through its beacons to tie ad exposure to store visits, partnered with AirKast, a mobile publisher of broadcasters such as Cumulus Media, CBS Radio News, Fox News and Radio One. The pair-up puts Freckle's technology in AirKast's apps, allowing advertisers to measure campaigns using Freckle's beacon data.
PlaceIQ, a company that uses opt-in mobile app location data to detect when devices are present at specific locations, also announced a partnership last week, with Oracle's BlueKai Marketplace, which advertisers use to build audiences for ad targeting.
Advertisers are increasingly interested in finding likely buyers by connecting purchase signals such as ad interactions or website visits to actual in-store visits, said Eric Roza, senior VP of Oracle Data Cloud, noting that location data is especially relevant for packaged-goods and auto marketers.
The deal puts PlaceIQ data in BlueKai's marketplace, but Oracle expects to use it in other products as well, Mr. Roza said.
The growing number of partnerships is creating more complexity in location data. In addition to its recent PlaceIQ deal, for example, Oracle also recently acquired Crosswise, a cross-device targeting firm that works with Placed. Mr. Roza suggested that the Crosswise-Placed relationship would continue.
"We're very comfortable working with folks where we think there is some competitive tension," he said, adding that sometimes overlapping data sets help produce better products.
PlaceIQ data has also been flowing since May through Adobe's Audience Manager, the marketing tech firm's data management platform. Location data showing whether someone's mobile device was present at an automaker's dealership, for example, can complement information already available in Adobe's system, such as data showing a visit to an automaker's website through a mobile device or desktop computer. Advertisers can then target marketing messages across several channels or gauge the efficacy of their campaigns.
In order to collect location data through app partners, PlaceIQ relies on users to explicitly opt-in to sharing their location data when they open the apps for the first time.
Mobile ad firm 4Info determines location data via a different process from Placed and PlaceIQ, but it, too, has begun fostering partnership deals with other tech platforms. The company determines a user's home address after it spots a device at a residence multiple times via app partner data, then links the address to other information through partners including data provider Acxiom.
"That's what we're selling to platform players," said Chuck Moxley, CMO of 4Info, referring to big clients that then incorporate its data in their own services to marketers. Going after partners, a relatively new model for 4Info, is important partly because it helps the company generate regular fees rather than relying on ad campaigns that come and go.
While 4Info argues that using store visit data to gauge ad effectiveness is less relevant than measuring actual purchase transactions, which the company does for most of its packaged-goods advertiser clients, Mr. Moxley acknowledged the value of mobile location data for measuring mobile ad campaigns.
"The key to the mobile device is it goes everywhere," he said. "Nobody carries their TV into the store."