Geofencing for Good. What is it and how can it change the way your organization operates?

Cindy Hoffman
Dec 18, 2019 · 5 min read
Geofencing allows you to capture the cell phone id’s of everyone in a location during a particular time-frame. Photo by PHOUNIUS on Unsplash

Is your organization using geofencing to find and move like-minded individuals to action? If not, it’s high-time to jump on this bandwagon.

I recently sat down with Alan Rosenblatt, one of my esteemed partners at turner4D to talk about geofencing. Geofencing allows you to draw a boundary around a location and identify the people who enter that location during a period of time through their cell phone’s id. This can be done during a long period of time or a specific time. So, for instance, a politician can geofence the arena where s/he hosted a kickoff event to capture all of the id’s during the event. (No more sign in sheets!) Then s/he can send ads asking for volunteers or donations right after the event. Alan says that once you have that list of people and their mobile devices, you can also capture their other devices when they connect to their home Wi-Fi. With those ids, you can start advertising to all of the devices these people use no matter where they are! “You can reach your audience no matter what device they are using. It’s people/device centric targeting, not website/social network centric.” I know, creepy, but cool, right?

Of course, there are some nuances to finding the right people through geofencing. For instance, say you want to target people in a certain Congressional District. You could geofence the district, but to refine your efforts, you could include additional criteria so that you don’t get commuters who are just driving through the CD during rush hour. By geofencing in the early morning or late at night, you omit most of that commuter traffic.

Here’s another example. Say you work for a conservation organization that is trying to recover bison. You might want to geofence Yellowstone National Park during the peak of the tourist season, but the lack of cell phone towers might be a problem. So instead, maybe you geofence the visitor’s center and the local towns around the park where the economy relies on wildlife. Now you can access visitors to the park, as well as employees and local businesses. Since bison are a big draw for the park, you have a great audience now of people who might care about their recovery and be willing to donate or take action.

Or say you are organizing factory workers. You could geofence the headquarters and factories: now you have the ids of management and labor and you can start running ads highlighting how great union workers are, to soften the resistance before contract negotiations.

Women’s March in Washington, DC. Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

One important note is that data broker vendors who sell this data maintain it for six months, allowing you access to data from past events within that window. So, if I was with a pro-choice organization, I could have captured the ids for most of the people that attended the Women’s March after Trump’s inauguration up to six months later. What a treasure trove. I sure hope they did that!

Cell phone ids are just the start. Once you have that, Alan says you can append that with email data, voter file data, social media account data, and financial data sets that are matched to the id. Now you have a really sophisticated database that you can mine for a great cause.

“This is a really powerful tool! Once you match this contact info, there is a lot you can do with it. You can send mobile ads and sidebar banner web ads, engage with the people via Twitter and Facebook, do email marketing, run ads on Facebook, and recruit and organize volunteers. A campaign can even create phone bank or walk lists,” says Alan.

He cautions that if you are using voter file data, there are limits as to how you can use the data. But you can do voter registration, GOTV, and ask people to take action on a policy issue. Alan says you can do anything covered by First Amendment political speech.

This is not new technology. The retail market has been using this data for a while now. All those credit card companies and product ads are not random, they are done through very sophisticated data gathering and it’s time we start using the same technology, and fast! Alan noted that the Republicans have been much better at using this type of data than the Democrats. He says the Trump campaign is way out front with this and referred me to a recent story in the New York Times by Thomas B. Edsall: Trump is Winning the Online War. In the article Edsall notes that Trump has already spend $15.9 million on Facebook and Google ads. That’s more than the $15.5 million spent by the top three Democratic candidates combined. The article quotes Daniel Kreiss, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, “The fact that Trump is an incumbent, without a significant primary challenger, means that his team and the Republican National Committee have had three years to build tools, collect data, test models and messaging, and mobilize supporters.

Geofencing is a powerful tool, but it’s important to think strategically when gathering the data and what you will do with it. Make sure you know who your audience is, what you want to say and what you want them to do. Our phones are our lifeline to so much, they carry more personal data than we keep in our homes. Now organizations can tap that data to mobilize people politically. It’s a game changer. Alan, being the professor that he is, is always willing to help you understand what this tool can do for your organization. Just give him a call!

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