GeoLocation Studies Are Cutting Edge in 2017, but Can Trace Origins Back to 1920

Location-based consumer research, with its origins in the 1920s, is not a new idea - however with increased technology it is becoming less complicated and expensive to obtain.

For nearly 100 years, location-based consumer research has been the gold standard for getting insights when they’re red-hot. Now, in the Smartphone Era, in-location insights can be even hotter, but considerably less complicated and expensive to obtain.

Location studies have come a long way since 1920, when a dozen researchers fanned out through the shopping district and surrounding neighborhoods of Sabetha, Kansas (pop. 2,003 at the time) to query townspeople for a Philadelphia company that published Ladies Home Journal, the Saturday Evening Post, and other popular magazines. They were on a quest for insights into how much bang these magazines’ advertisers were getting for their buck.

Today’s insights professionals can accomplish in-location surveys with just one researcher who’s sitting in front of a computer screen that might be anywhere. 21st century GeoLocation technology makes it possible to pinpoint any mobile device’s whereabouts, and an unlimited number of locations can be “geofenced” to encompass all the stores or other venues that might be  relevant to a given research project. All that’s needed is an accurate latitude/longitude coordinate for each location in the study.

For example, a comparative study involving products sold at pharmacies could geofence Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid stores across the U.S., or within a particular region. When a member of an opt-in mobile panel crosses a geofence, that person is now GeoLocated, and automatically receives a push notification on the same phone that has revealed he or she is in the right place to receive the location-based survey. That makes each respondent a spiritual heir to the 1920 townsfolk of Sabetha, Kansas — and each researcher who conducts a GeoLocation study stands on the shoulders of the dozen intrepid people who came to Kansas armed with paper and pencils and questions about magazine ads.   

History – or at least Stefan Schwarzkopf’s account in “The Routledge Companion to Marketing History” — doesn’t specify what the Sabetha researchers working under pioneer market researcher Charles Coolidge Parlin managed to learn about magazine advertising’s efficacy in rural Kansas. But I’m pretty sure that future volumes on the history of market research will have plenty to say about GeoLocation studies.

They may note that the 21st Century gold standard for in-location research surpassed the 20th century standard in one important way. By eliminating  direct, face-to-face contact mediated by a clipboard and pen, GeoLocation studies reduce the bias that comes from unavoidable variances between researchers’ personalities, training, and consistency in asking survey questions – all of which can impact a study’s results.

Mobile GeoLocation puts the answers solely (and literally) in the respondents’ hands. The objectives of today’s unseen in-location researchers will be more or less the same as they were in 1920: insights into shoppers’ motivations, actions, thoughts and feelings at or just after the moment of truth when purchasing decisions are made. But by substituting smartphones in respondents’ hands for clipboards and pens wielded by the interviewer, today’s in-location projects can access an unprecedented fount of vivid data — real-time audio and video that can be introduced to enhance a question, or collected from respondents who make audio/video selfies to provide in-their-own-words answers. It’s a development that those pre-talkies 1920s visitors to Kansas probably couldn’t have imagined – but whose value for consumer research they surely would have understood.

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