Ghost People: Consumers Sunk Into Smartphones Are Not Where You Think

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Phones tell marketers where their owners are. They also help people slip far, far away.
Phones tell marketers where their owners are. They also help people slip far, far away. Credit: istock

The ironic thing about the nearly pinpoint accuracy with which we can locate people as they use their mobile devices is that their physical whereabouts have less and less to do with where they actually are.

We have the technology to figure out, for instance, that a given person is in a specific store—in some cases right down to the department he's in. But is he really there there? Is he shopping, with the intent to actually buy something, or is he somewhere else—like on the Amazon app on his phone, checking for a better price?

Likewise, we have the technology to figure out that a given person is in a specific coffee shop. But is she really present? As in, observant and engaged in her surroundings and, you know, having a conversation with her fellow patrons? (The New York Times recently reported about the plague of the modern cafe as a sort of morgue-like free WeWork space in an article headlined "What to Do When Laptops and Silence Take Over Your Cafe?")

Marketers are clearly struggling with the cultural shift. In retail settings, some suggest that targeted location-based advertising (LBA)—like discount offers triggered by geography—can get consumers to reengage with their immediate surroundings. But is a constant stream of little bribes really the best way to counter the Amazon threat?

The most drilled-down LBA approaches—such as proximity-marketing activations, where you might get pinged with an offer when you cross a particular line in the sand, such as a store entrance—have been tricky to deploy. Beacons and geofencing require setup, management and maintenance, and then who even knows if your typical consumer is equipped to receive a retailer's or brand's generous (if desperate) discount offer.

Much of the hype around location-based marketing emerged when there was still a sense of limitless possibility around the app ecosystem. But now we know that most smartphone users deploy fewer than 10 apps in a given week, and maybe 30 or so in a given month—and it's social and messaging apps that ultimately dominate.

Many location-aware apps were built with the presumption that "if you build it, they will come." Basically, a marketer must assume/hope/pray that a given consumer will, first, care enough to download an app, then launch and register it, then either keep launching it at the right time and place or opt in to location sharing and notifications.

In essence, we're assuming multiple layers of meaningful presence on the part of consumers, over time. (Spoiler: That's asking too much.)

Meanwhile, the behavior of consumers who still prefer brick-and-mortar shopping is being transformed. Checkout lanes at grocery stores, for instance, used to be some of the most valuable real estate in retail; media empires, including the mighty People magazine franchise, were built on the last-minute purchase—but that once hyper-lucrative sales space, with its captive audience inching forward, is increasingly subject to what retailers call "mobile blinders" (a phenomenon that affects not only magazines but candy bars, gum and other impulse buys). There's probably some way to cobble together existing technologies to reengage these consumers, but the perfect solution has yet to arrive.

In general, we lack even the basic cultural vocabulary to begin to describe the great shift to mobile. Many TV shows, for instance, still subscribe to the "Friends"-era conception of public spaces: people sitting around Central Perk in carefree conversation, tossing off bon mots (cue the laugh track). And virtually no long-form storytellers have figured out how to realistically convey the sheer volume of our lives now devoted to mobile usage. The best effort I've seen to date comes courtesy of Andrey Zvyagintsev, director of the Russian film "Loveless," an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film that tells the somber story of a failing marriage and a neglected kid. The estranged adults in that film repeatedly disappear into themselves as they stare at their smartphone screens—they're physically in the room, but effectively someplace else—which is a surreal but strangely resonant thing to sit through as you watch it on a big screen in a movie theater.

What I'm suggesting is that our everyday lives have changed dramatically in the blink of an eye; smartphone penetration in the U.S. tipped past the 50 percent mark only four years ago. And we're nowhere near grasping how seismic the change has been, particularly when it comes to what location—physical and virtual—really means in a mobile-device-centric world.

Because when we're surrounded by people who are there but not there, where are we, really? 

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