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The one insight that made me realize location-based messages from brands aren’t as creepy as they sound

December 12, 2016

As I’m sitting in Starbucks, enjoying my soy latte and warmed-up blueberry muffin, I’m also enjoying another Starbucks offering: their free WiFi. Around me are half a dozen or more MacBooks, and I imagine they’re all connected to the WiFi as well.


If you use the Starbucks app, you’ll know that brands like Starbucks have started using geo-location technologies to learn about their customers and their preferences. When you’re in a physical location of a brand using such technologies, that brand can recognize you via Bluetooth or iBeacons placed throughout the store and communicate messages to you accordingly. If you don’t have Bluetooth turned on, and aren’t on the company’s app, they can’t communicate with you based on your location — so it’s easily avoidable if you don’t want to be recognized.

But thanks to even newer technologies, Wi-Fi is now another method companies can use to identify their customers by location as well. So if you walk into a store and are standing in a particular section for a certain amount of time (say hypothetically the shoe section), and you’re connected to their Wi-Fi, you may be sent an offer for shoes if you’ve opted in to receive notifications.

The value of this for brands makes sense. But from a consumer standpoint, concern about the creepy-factor is inevitable. Brands already have too much data on us outside of the store, and though it benefits their algorithms and whatnot to get a full picture of us, we aren’t necessarily ready for them to have it. No one wants to feel like their every move is being monitored and stored into a company’s database.

And I was skeptical myself — until I understood it better.

To set up these location-based messages, brands don’t trace your every move, monitor what you’re texting your friend about, and send you offers accordingly. Instead, they set up “if this, then that” statements on their backend. What that means, for instance in the shoe example we mentioned earlier, is that they write statements like this: “If a phone is in the shoe Wi-Fi zone for more than 10 minutes, send a text for a discount on shoes.” The companies assign their different Wi-Fi zones to different areas of the store, and logically, if you’re in a particular area for a long time, you’re likely interested in those sorts of items. Or, take hotels: if a loyal customer with many rewards points is connected to the lobby’s Wi-Fi area for a set amount of time, the hotel can set their system to alert a specific person to go check on that customer and see if they need to be helped.

Still sound creepy? Probably. It’s nice to get a discount, or special perks, but not at the expense of companies knowing your general whereabouts. Here’s the important thing to understand, though: the only location data they actually need to have on you is what Wi-Fi zone you’re getting your signal from, or which iBeacons are closest to you. So the reason these services aren’t as creepy as they sound?

Because we’re already giving them the only information they need for this to work, and we don’t care.

Every time you’re logged onto Wi-Fi, your phone is getting signal from some zone and the hotel, airport, or wherever needs to be able to see that on their backend anyway in order to provide you with the service. This likely doesn’t make you lose any sleep at night or question the ethics of technology. It’s fine– you’re using their service and the value exchange makes sense for you. So this is just them having the exact same information, but you’re able to receive live, in-store offers in the process as a result of the rules that they’ve set.

It’s opt-in, so you can still get on their Wi-Fi and not receive the offers. But why not? If they have the only innocuous data needed for this already, you may as well get some good deals out of it. You can also choose to log in anonymously, but the benefit of logging in with your credentials is that if you have loyalty points with the brand, those come into consideration with the deals you’re given — like in the VIP hotel guest example. In that case, though, you have to be okay with the in-store data tying back to the online data they already have about you.

So if you still think the world isn’t ready for these sorts of location-based messages from brands, that’s fine. You don’t have to opt-in. But then don’t get on the free Wi-Fi there, either.

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