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The Industry Just Got New Mobile Location Data Guidelines

By Published on .

Credit: peterhowell/iStock
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The marketing industry just got standards for mobile location data.

With input from Starcom MediaVest Group, Acxiom, Facebook, Google, Apple and several tech firms that providing location data services, the industry's Media Rating Council has finalized detailed guidelines for an array of location data gathering methods in an effort to provide benchmarks for gauging accuracy and precision.

Advertisers have been spending more money to use location data for targeting audiences and measuring whether their ads led people to physically visit stores. But with that increase in investment has come growing dissatisfaction with a lack of standards in the area.

The new 45-page set of guidelines spell out how companies providing location data should ensure its accuracy and how they should explain their methods to marketers. To prevent conclusions that thousands of people spend all day at a Starbucks when it just happens to occupy the ground floor of an office building, for example, the guidelines suggest accounting for altitude, not just ground-level location.

"It's less about prescribing the exact methodology and more about prescribing the requirements for whatever a vendor chooses to use," said Ron Pinelli, VP digital research and standards for the MRC, the advertising industry's longtime arbiter of measurement benchmarks and techniques.

The guidance encompasses various sources for mobile location data such as requests for ads to serve to mobile devices, beacons, Wi-Fi networks, cell towers and GPS.

The guide calls on vendors that attribute locations to devices based on ad requests, a method that can often be faulty, "to also employ alternate data sets and algorithms to detect patterns of inaccurate/fraudulent location data and filter it out, with empirical support and disclosure."

Methods for assigning a physical location to a particular mobile device vary in accuracy and precision, said Mr Pinelli. "What's important is that you're very clear on exactly how you're deriving location and what the strengths and limitations of that are."

The guidance could affect a variety of tactics employed by mobile location data firms that provide ad targeting and measurement services. Several such firms participated in crafting the guidelines, including 4info, Placed, PlaceIQ, NinthDecimal, Unacast, Verve Mobile and xAd, which recently introduced a cost-per-visit ad pricing model.

Goal: The Seal of Approval

Now that close to 100 firms have signed off on the guidelines, companies have begun talking to the MRC about getting accredited as responsible adherents. MRC accreditation typically involves an initial audit by the council's CPAs, followed by an in-depth examination typically lasting three to four months. After the adoption of any changes suggested by the MRC, in most cases the council bestows a seal of approval.

That accreditation is likely to become the accepted signal denoting quality location data-based measurement standards. The MRC has been known to pull its accreditation until alleged problems with specific metrics are addressed.

The guidelines finalize a draft offered for public comment in November. They were developed in conjunction with the Interactive Advertising Bureau and the Mobile Marketing Association. According to the MRC, the new guidelines "should be considered in conjunction with the IAB's Mobile Location Data Guide for Publishers, published February 2016, as well as the MMA's Demystifying Location Data Accuracy whitepaper."

The Industry's De facto Measurement Validator

The MRC's role as a self-regulatory measurement validator typically does not involve oversight of privacy practices. However, the guidelines do call on vendors and app publishers to "obtain the end user's permission, and to provide concise, clear privacy policy notices describing how their app products and/or web services use and share data and what the consumer's choices are." They also note that data gatherers should obtain "clear opt-in" from consumers, referring to the standard industry practice of requiring that people agree to allow apps to track and collect their mobile device location.

It also suggests that vendors "establish first-party relationships for collection of location data where feasible." That is an unlikely proposition for the many firms operating in the growing mobile location sector which do so as third parties, harvesting data from a variety of partners such as firms that manage Wi-Fi or beacon networks.

"We still try to be cognizant of the user and the consumer when we are writing these things," said Mr. Pinelli, who stressed that the MRC did not want the guidelines to mandate data privacy practices.

The MRC has flown mostly under-the-radar for decades. But it has attained newfound relevance as new digital media and ad metrics proliferated. Around 15 years ago, the MRC oversaw approximately 20 audits each year. That number has skyrocketed to around 100, around two-thirds of them involving digital metrics.

The MRC's dues-paying members include the largest advertiser trade groups, advertisers and media companies, including the 4A's agency association, the ANA, the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Starcom, GroupM, AOL, NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, Twitter, Google's DoubleClick and many more. The council also acts as a liaison between companies undergoing audits and CPA firms conducting the audits such as EY and Deloitte.