Where in the World Are Your Customers?

"Presence" capabilities, such as the Global Positioning System and Caller ID, have been providing systems like 911 and General Motors' OnStar the ability to locate users--primarily, to send help. Geolocation (as it's sometimes called), however, now extends beyond emergency situations. Today organizations can use the technology as a part of their marketing and sales efforts. Rather than having to rely on a one-message-fits-all national marketing blitz, new technologies are enabling companies to more tightly focus their regular customer interactions on a geographic basis. Until recently companies had to capture a phone number or a zip code to know a customer's location. Such vendors as Quova and Digital Envoy, however, are making it possible to automatically identify location based on the Internet Protocol (IP) address through which customers connect to the Web or send email. According to Geoff Simon, CEO of Acclivity Marketing, Web analytics can turn that information into geographic patterns of usage: "You can find out where your site visitors are coming from." That's valuable information to advertisers wanting to target a specific geographic location. Another bonus is that tracking IP addresses helps companies learn more about their customers. "Once you know them better, you can make your site more accessible for people coming from areas you didn't know that people were coming from," Simon says. One company, for example, was surprised to see that 35 percent of its site's visitors were coming from South America--and decided to translate a large portion of its online content into Spanish, according to Simon. Geolocation has already begun to impact various aspects of marketing and sales, from lead generation (automatically pushing prospects to the appropriate regional sales rep) to paid search results (segmented according to searchers' IP addresses). The possibilities for managing the supply chain are limitless. For example, a car company can see that more people from the Midwest are checking out the latest SUV online, and to avoid shortages, ship additional inventory there. The real opportunity, Simon says, is "to shorten the distance between the [customer] entry point and the point where [the companies] make a conversion or sale....You're obviously going to concentrate your marketing...to target the users in areas that are converting better than others." One minor problem with geolocation, though, is that not every Web surfer is riding the same kind of wave. Some visitors--including, most notably, the millions of AOL members--are entering the Web through a proxy server, which effectively masks their true location. Some observers say the granularity of real-world location is a level of detail that few may be ready for. Simon, for one, believes that geolocation is "more useful for making marketing decisions on the fly." He says he can foresee the customer service benefits, but he doesn't think the market is quite there yet. Greg Gianforte, CEO and founder of contact center specialist RightNow Technologies, says "Companies are still taking pretty baby steps in leveraging what they know about customers. Geographic resolution stuff is a second-order capability. Just being able to know who called is a breakthrough."
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