When law enforcement agencies believe that a child has been abducted and is in imminent danger, they issue an Amber Alert to share the type of car and plate number with the general public. Since the program began offering digital signups in 2002, that message has been able to be delivered via SMS-message, thanks to a partnership with cell phone providers that let the cops send info to opted-in devices within range of the immediate area of the alleged crime.
The problem is many people are already on their cell phones, which means some text-based alerts could be ignored. So in May 2015, the police added a new partner, xAd, a location-based mobile marketing company, which works with The Federation of Internet Alerts (FIA) to serve up a large, flashy and highly descriptive warning within whatever app you’re already using to distraction. The service targets users based on their phone’s location, and can expand to cover more people in the event that a search radius grows. XAd says it has reached nearly 650,000 people in places where the siren goes off, with a click-thru rates an unbelievable-but-true 2160% higher than the industry average. Since launching, the FIA partnership has helped the cops maintain a 98% recovery rate for children who receive an Amber alert.
There are, of course, less good deeds in the company’s ouevre, as well, like boosting Arby’s sales by pushing ads for the Brown Sugar Bacon Sandwich to those within a two-mile radius of store locations, another xAd roll out this year. The company, has also worked with Dunkin Donuts, Scion, Outback Steakhouse, BMW, and Columbia Sportswear. In addition to location-centric alerts they can batch messages by broader categories like income or previous behavior that indicates a predilection for some deal.
“Obviously consumers now are always on. Half of their time is spent away from home, and they are walking around with a device in hand,” says chief marketing officer Monica Ho. “Our vision as a company is to get people to a better place.” Once upon a time “better” seemingly meant better for the partner business. But as xAd’s own business has expanded, so have aspirations about what the power of location and a suggestive nudge might do. “If you have really good technology then you should be able to change the world and make the world a better place.”
Over the last two years, xAd’s emerging Location for Good program has partnered a handful of cause groups figure out if the best digital sales tactics might be potentially harnessed for some collectively greater goal. Rather than leave people to their own spur of the moment decisions, the company spurs behavior though a technology it calls Blueprints, a proprietary platform that transforms various map points into different geo-location zones covering the radial footprint of a store, shopping center, bridge and surrounding waters, or even city park. (The tech is far beyond traditional geo-fencing, which links to street addresses, meaning it misses most folks inside stores while netting a lot of parking lots.) “If you are looking at physical behavior as a proxy for intent, you need to be able to index those behaviors appropriately,” Ho adds.
Those fields—the company has already generated more than 100 million of them—can then be synced with the current location of about 500 million monthly users who’ve opted to share data. In-app messaging is then distributed through a network of about 100,000 apps including WeatherBug, Pandora, and GasBuddy.
So far, they’ve tried a handful of next generation tactics to help groups fundraise smarter or figure out how to inspire more action. An early move, in 2015, was to host ads for Oxfam America that could reach those who might already be in the giving mindset—it took place during the holiday season, banded around shopping centers, malls, or grocery stores. The group also launched similar campaign billboards and then reinforced the message by making that immediate area around them a mobile ad zone. The campaign targeted the phones of those already associated with giving and volunteer behaviors. In all, they created 7% uptick in total donations, with 7% more first-time donors, and 13% more mobile revenue year over year, according to an in-house report. In some ad copy, Oxfam suggested donating trees or wells respectively. Interest in both skyrocketed.
XAd’s work with charities is pro bono. It highlights their impact on groups often trying such methods from scratch. In an online testimonial, Josh Silva, a senior marketing officer at Oxfam calls that holiday campaign the “most successful” in the group’s 10 year history.
Groups are leveraging the technology in other ways, too. In times of crisis, nonprofits can now think strategically about where to find the biggest pool of sympathetic donors to activate. After the Nepal earthquake, xAd and Oxfam encircled venues associated with Internet Week in New York to raise $10,000 in emergency shelter supplies for 1,000 families. Community service organizations who want to expand could also run dual campaigns to bolster both the supply and demand for their wares. In another campaign, xAd worked with Goodwill to drive donations by targeting Hispanics, a population had already been identified as prolific givers, while setting up alerts for anyone who might be in the area of a nearby store. Inventory rose while store visits jumped 43% nationally.
Others are testing what specific behaviors might make consumers cause allies. In 2016, xAd ran campaign that matched pet shelters experiencing an overflow of animals to the screens of consumers already showing they were pet friendly by visiting pet stores or dog parks. They’ve also formatted ads in the form of surveys to audit the effectiveness of traditional campaigns like the “Lock It Up” movement by the Ad Council, National Crime Prevention Council and U.S. Department of Justice. That helps track if messages about things like safely securing weapons are being received in areas with increasing gun ownership. (They are—at least among smartphone owners.)
There’s a chance to influence how people live as well. A “Move this Movember”campaign surrounding transit hubs in the United Kingdom attempted to not only raise awareness for men’s health issues, but encourage everyone to be more active. Thrive, a company that offers free delivery of healthier foods to those living in food deserts has used the service around schools to drive awareness of its services.
Of course, figuring out if your ad moves more sandwiches, cars, or direct donations is easier than figuring out who will make long term life changes. Still, xAd claims to at least be able to get people’s attention—it generates interactions with 70% of the U.S. consumers they target on a monthly basis. “It’s not one of those things were we can guarantee we are going to reach everyone, but when our message reaches people, most of the time they take action because the message is so targeted,” Ho says.
Look for that ability to expand. In November, the company acquired WeatherBug. Lots of people check the weather but rain or sunshine also affect your mood and movement choices, which means xAd may soon be able to figure out both where you are and a little bit more about what you’re thinking. “Your physical behavior changes in the moment based on what’s going on around you,” Ho says.
On a cold day, that may leave you more suggestible to, say, buying winter gear. Or the company could conceivably use that moment to push you toward providing shelter for others suffering in harsh climates. Maybe both.