It’s no secret that marketers and advertisers can track the sites you visit on the Internet, helping them learn about your lifestyle and tailor Web advertisements and promotional e-mails just for you.
What happens, though, when that power moves offline? What if, in addition to learning about you by tracking the sites you visit on the Internet, companies could learn about you by keeping tabs on the places you visit in person?
It’s not a hypothetical. It’s already happening.
Gravy, a Leesburg-based company that provides location-based data analytics to companies mostly in the retail, publishing and hospitality industries, has raised $7.6 million to accelerate the development of its technology platform. Those making investments include the media giant Gannett in McLean (one of the company’s clients) and New York telecommunications giant MetTel. Robert Dickey, head of Gannett U.S. Community Publishing, and Steven Tunney, a top executive at MetTel, also will join Gravy’s board of directors.
Started in 2011 by Jeff White, an entrepreneur who previously founded and sold two companies in the Washington area, Gravy was initially formed to cultivate a database of events around the country. Today, the company’s business has shifted. It now uses satellite technology and digital maps to create what are known as “geo-fences” around arenas, restaurants, stores, yoga studios and various other venues.
If you’re carrying around a smartphone with an app run by one of Gravy’s clients, Gravy’s platform can run unnoticed in the background. With your GPS settings enabled, the firm can then detect when you pass through one of those geo-fences — and thus know what event you attended.
“It’s everything from the Rihanna concert at the Verizon Center to the children’s puppet show at your local library,” White said about the events his company monitors, later noting that the firm’s technology allows for very precise tracking: “It knows if a user actually went into the restaurant or if they were just out in the parking lot.”
Gravy now has 20 employees in Northern Virginia, and while White declined to name any investors besides Gannett, the company’s Web site cites case studies involving Hilton and L’Oreal. Dave Dague, a spokesperson for the company, said Gravy has several other large clients in the hotel and retail industries. A spokeswoman for Gannett said that the company is experimenting with the technology in a limited way, in niche apps in a few of its markets.
Rick Braddock, previously chief executive at Priceline, is one of several angel investors who participated in an earlier, smaller financing round for Gravy. He was appointed as the company’s board chairman in September and contributed to this latest round of funding.
“I’m more enthusiastic than ever about the company’s transformational position in the marketplace,” Braddock said in a statement on Thursday.
Monitoring real-time location information is hardly a novelty these days — instead, White said, it’s how the company packages and analyzes that data that he believes sets Gravy apart from other players in the digital marketing arena. That is, with the proliferation of GPS-enabled smartphones, advertisers raced to start taking advantage of knowing where consumers were at any given time. The most obvious tactic was to flood your phone with promotional materials — browser ads, coupon alerts, and so on — the minute you walked near a store.
Gravy has taken a different approach. It’s not “We know you’re near a wine store, so here’s a coupon for half off a bottle of Chardonnay.” It’s more “We know you attended three wine tastings and eight yoga classes last month, and I know what that means about your lifestyle. I’ll bet advertisers would like to know that, too.”
It’s not merely advertisers who can make use of the data, though. A publisher can use the information it learns about its readers to lure advertisers that want to reach a certain type of consumer. White says the system is also used in-house to help deliver more tailored news content to each reader.
“I think we’re just at the beginning of where this is going,” White said. “I can imagine a world where you walk into Best Buy, and your phone instantly lights up to say that ‘the things you love are located here and here and here.’ Who knows?”
Of course, that type of tracking can spook some individuals, and White is quick to point out that the company’s software has been built to gather information “in an extremely privacy-conscious manner.” So while its platform creates a personalized profile for individuals, those profiles don’t include any identifiable information about who the person is, and specific location data isn’t stored, he said.
“We’re just sitting in the background listening,” White said.
What’s interesting, he added, is that while privacy is paramount, it appears many consumers aren’t merely accepting of the type of personalized experience and communications these new-age marketing strategies facilitate — they flat out expect them.
“It used to be an annoyance,” White said about the type of traffic monitoring that happened behind the scenes on the Web. “Now, it has gotten to the point where we’re annoyed if what we receive isn’t personalized and targeted. Shoppers know the tools are out there, and we’re seeing them essentially tell retailers and brands, ‘take the time to know me better and personalize my experience.’ ”
Correction: This article has been corrected to reflect that while Gannett is a client of Gravy, it is testing the technology in a limited way and has not adopted it across its digital properties.