On April 17, the Weather Channel launched a new version of its site, offering users the chance to create a personalized weather page.
Just 40 minutes after launch, 1,000 people had already customized their page, opening the door for Weather Channel to funnel geographically targeted ads from clients ranging from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Ameritech.
"For the first time, we know who people are," said Todd Walrath, director of product development at Weather Channel.
Like many so-called "geotargeting" systems being tested around the country, this is just the beginning. Mr. Walrath said the Weather Channel would like to be as specific as offering allergy updates in specific areas, with ads for locally available medication.
"That kind of local content, would just bring more value to an advertiser, instead of going into a national bucket," he said.
Until now, Web sites have relied on two major methods to discover a person's location: asking and observing.
ONE PIECE IN PUZZLE
Sites that register their users ask them to disclose their ZIP code, along with demographic and psychographic information. Similarly, users disclose personal interests when they visit sites supplying weather forecasts, phone listings, maps and city guides.
Observation is another major method that companies use to target. Ad network DoubleClick, for example, deduces someone's locale by examining things like the IP address of a user's computer (which tells where it is located) or a digital ID assigned when one enters a site.
How valuable is geotargeting? While it's the most commonly requested device in DoubleClick's bag of targeting tricks, it can only go so far in reaching an appropriate consumer.
Delivering an ad for an auto dealer to someone who has created a weather map of Denver is only valuable if the person who sees that ad is in the Denver area. If he's not, it's a wasted impression.
For many sites, geotargeting is just one piece in a marketing puzzle that's increasingly turning toward targeting by demographic and psychographic profile as well.
John Gaffney, director of marketing at Aptex Software, believes the future of geotargeting will be in combining openly disclosed information with observation.
TARGETING THE PLAYERS
Aptex markets SelectCast, a tool that helps sites target users by comparing characteristics of people whose profiles are known, with unknown users who exhibit similar behavior.
Mr. Gaffney said SelectCast will add a geography component to its software later this year.
Another targeting technology company, StarPoint Software, does geotargeting through ZIP codes, but predicts that until there are ways to pinpoint users more finely, other means of targeting may be more appropriate.
"Yes, we'll see more geotargeting," said Virginia MacLean, director of corporate marketing. "As the box opens, it'll open very quickly." Once advertisers see what's available to them, "You'll see customer demands for more complex and complete types of targeting."
Charles Conn, CEO of local online network CitySearch, believes that making too many geographical assumptions could actually be doing a disservice to consumers.
How far somebody might drive to visit a restaurant varies from city to city, he said. "I'm more excited about asking people what they want, rather than infer what they want," Mr. Conn said.
PRIVACY PUNDITS WARY
Regardless, geotargeting will continue to grow, but how far marketers are able to take it, or any other advertising tracking technology, may be up to the privacy pundits, who are wary of sites knowing too much about people.
Aptex's Mr. Gaffney believes there are people who disclose everything, and that data will follow them around the Web like a passport. Others will only share information occasionally.
But no matter what kind of targeting people want to do, there will always be "people who won't give their Social Security number out. No matter how the Web changes, they'll block the [targeting] and they'll need the right to do that," said Mr. Gaffney.
Copyright May 1997, Crain Communications Inc.