Even Facebook Can’t Just Waltz Into The Location Data Space

FacebooklocationFacebook, which recently took the wraps off a tool that lets advertisers link location-aware ads to store visits, may have more than 1.5 billion users, but scale isn’t the only prerequisite for cracking offline attribution.

“My question for Facebook would be: Do they know the spatial outlines of every McDonald’s in America?” said Duncan McCall, CEO and co-founder of PlaceIQ. “Understanding the real-world characteristics of a location is equally as important – if not more important – than scale, and that’s going to be difficult for Facebook because they’re not a geospatial company.”

PlaceIQ, Factual, xAd and other location firms spend an enormous amount of time trying to map the physical world, creating polygons – also known as geofences or outlines – of places like stores, restaurants, car dealerships, banks and malls. These need to be continuously updated as stores open, close or expand.

The purpose is to try and figure out with the highest level of exactitude whether someone really entered a particular establishment or were just idling in the parking lot outside or strolling into the store next door.

“The precise location and geometry of a commercial venue, for example, a grocery store, mall or coffee shop, is absolutely critical to being able to accurately translate location into real-world visits,” said David Bairstow, VP of product at Skyhook Wireless. “I know that Facebook licenses venue information from third parties, but I am not aware of how they are physically positioning venues and to what degree of accuracy.”

Down To Size

There are three main challenges for figuring out online-to-offline attribution: scale, timeliness and, of course, accuracy, said Rob Murphy, VP of marketing at Swirl.

And Facebook, despite its size and enormous data set, is subject to the same limitations and laws that govern the reality of location-specific data companies toiling to solve the same problem.=

One limiting factor is location services, which allow location-based apps and sites to pull from signals, such as beacons, Wi-Fi, GPS and cell towers, to try and pinpoint a user’s approximate location. GPS coordinates are widely considered to be of lower quality, while Wi-Fi and beacon signals generally yield more precise results.

“Obviously, Facebook has considerable scale overall, especially considering that it’s just one independent publisher,” said PlaceIQ’s McCall. “But it’s still too early to say how compelling that deterministic data set is from a location perspective.”

Facebook’s in-store visit reporting allows advertisers to see foot traffic in real time, broken down by age and gender. Advertisers get an estimated metric of total visits based on a mixture of users with location enabled and Facebook’s own modeling.

Facebook counts the devices within the boundaries of a business as best it’s able, and then polls a sample of users to determine the reliability of measurement. For example, Facebook may examine the proportion of people that have location turned on in a particular place.

Most of Facebook’s location data comes from users who have turned on location services and checked the main Facebook app while in a store, which is called the foreground location, and from users who enable the “location history” setting powering Facebook’s Nearby Friends function.

But that’s assuming quite a few steps before Facebook is able to make a determination.

“No matter how much scale you have on a single app, the chance your app or set of apps will get used in or around the store is very small,” said Shashi Seth, chief product officer at xAd.

One could argue, however, that standing in line at a retail location, coffee shop or grocery store is the perfect time to whip out a phone and mindlessly browse news feeds.

It’s unclear, though, how many of Facebook’s more than 1 billion daily active users enable location. Even if every human on Earth uses its app, that app can’t track location if location services aren’t enabled.

Foreground location would greatly pump up Facebook’s scale, but FB isn’t looking for trouble in the privacy realm.

Facebook Messenger, for example, no longer has automatic foreground location tracking enabled after a bit of a brouhaha in June 2015 when a Harvard student, about to embark on a Facebook internship, discovered that Messenger users unwittingly shared their location with everyone they messaged by default.

Roughly a week later, Facebook switched off automatic location tracking in Messenger … and cancelled the student’s internship. (Facebook claimed it had already been planning to make the change months before and that the internship was rescinded because the student violated Facebook’s policies by scraping data.)

That said, Facebook isn’t a random game or flashlight app, and there may be a legitimate reason to ask users to hand over their location.

“Users are willing to share location data with apps when it’s clear how their experience will be better if they share the data and it’s clear how the data shapes their interaction with the app,” said Vikas Gupta, director of marketing and operations at Factual.

Facebooklocation_2Next Steps?

This isn’t Facebook’s first effort around linking ads to offline foot traffic. It’s also been working with Oracle-owned Datalogix since 2011 to try and do online and offline matching using offline purchase data, though there were some challenges there around real-time reporting.

This time around, Facebook is expanding its partner list to include IBM, Index, Invoca, Lightspeed, LiveRamp, Marketo and Square to support transactional data imported through their various marketing software offerings.

Facebook’s newest location product is another validation of the location space, said xAd’s Seth. When Facebook focuses on something, the industry snaps to attention. For the moment, there’s still a lot of work to do and enough market share to go around.

But it’s also another example of Facebook’s growing dominance, and another way for Facebook to make its ad products even stickier with advertisers.

Sticky could also describe the situation in which Facebook may find itself by controlling both targeting and the measurement. Advertisers are already a bit wary of the walled-garden gambit.

“Selling media and attribution creates an inherent conflict of interest along the lines of grading one’s [own] homework,” said David Shim, CEO and founder of Placed. “Agencies and advertisers have consistently pushed for a separation of church and state.”

At some point down the line, the location space will need better standards – it’s on the Media Rating Council’s road map – and a generally accepted measurement currency.

“We’re still in the early stages, but some of the big guys, a Nielsen, maybe, or a comScore, will have to own it,” McCall said.

In the meantime, anything Facebook does needs to be taken seriously, and the best tactic may be “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

“Because of its sheer size, in terms of mobile audience and ad dollars, Facebook is poised to play a major role in the attribution ecosystem,” Murphy said. “The winners in the attribution measurement space will be those providers who work with Facebook to create additional value for retailers and advertisers.”


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