A Brave New Push: Urban Airship Brings Location, Context Targeting To Mobile Notifications

At the end of October, Urban Airship, the startup that gives developers a simple way to build in-app purchases and push notifications into their mobile apps, acquired SimpleGeo for a reported $3.5 million. At the time, it was unclear what Urban Airship would be doing with the terabyte-plus of SimpleGeo location data, but in January, Urban Airship announced that it would be shutting down the startup’s Places, Context, and Storage services by April 1st. Though both SimpleGeo co-founders have left the company, the rest of the team stayed on board and has been heads down, plugging away on a big new product.

Today, at O’Reilly’s Where Conference, in its biggest announcement since its acquisition of SimpleGeo, Urban Airship is unveiling that product — which combines its push notification platform with the ability to segment audiences by location, time, context, and preferences in an effort to improve relevancy and targeting of both messages and offers.

The startup, which hired Skype’s former strategy boss and hit 10 billion notifications pushed in January (and is now at 17 billion), will be using SimpleGeo’s searchable geo-spatial data to allow developers and organizations to access “frequently updated” latitudinal and longitudinal data from opted-in users. And that’s an important point to make, and one that the startup’s CEO Scott Kveton stressed when we spoke yesterday, given the nature of Urban Airship’s new location product — that “Segments” will be strictly opt-in.

That being said, the product will enable organizations to build and save audience segments for messaging, so that a national retailer could, for example, offload excess inventory from stores in San Francisco by targeting its offers to people who live in the Bay Area. This also includes the ability to target offers by multiple zip codes, really any audience segment that may have a preference for that product. Or, as another example, a concert hall with a bunch of extra tickets for a show on a slow night, could send push notifications offering deals to all users who happen to be near the venue.

Media sites could use Urban Airship’s Segments to define custom segments, like Travelers or Movers, identifying them based on their change of location over time and pushing local news content only to those who would find it contextually relevant, i.e. the people actually living there.

As Kveton pointed out when we spoke, push notifications and messages that only take into account location data are blunt instruments that have more potential to become an annoyance and a deterrent from whatever service or content they’re hawking. Adding further context to the location data, like layering in preference and behavior, should presumably allow developers to be more targeted in their push messaging. Bombarding someone with push notifications is obnoxious, regardless of how “targeted” those messages are, and so Kveton said that the startup is working with their customers (and brands) to ensure that they’re pursuing best practices when it comes to this relatively new mobile capability.

And, on that note, all Urban Airship customers will be able to leverage Segments. Specifically, the startup will be giving developers that want to boost app functionality based on location and time-based data will access to its API, while offering a web-based tool for marketers looking to segment their audience. Users will also be able join location information with tags that include in-app behaviors, preferences, and device profiles, so that they can, say, target iPad users in a particular location at a given time who have expressed preferences for specific content or product categories.

Urban Airship will make its iOS and Android device libraries available today, while Premium Plan members will be able to add location segmentation, like “designated marketing areas” in the near future.

In addition to launching Segments, the startup is also today announcing a strategic partnership with Meridian, a venture-backed startup that has built a location-based software platform for places. The partnership will allow Urban Airship’s users to leverage Meridian’s indoor targeting capabilities to, for example, reach people at a supermarket at the point of decision. Together with Segments, the startup now enables users to identify audiences based on preferences to delivering targeted messages inside buildings.

Meridian recently partnered with Cisco to offer the first “indoor GPS” app for the American Museum of Natural History, and has focused its efforts on providing venues and companies with building-specific mapping, search functionality, multimedia, and directions. With Meridian’s indoor location mapping, companies can now push multimedia content to users when they’re inside a particular venue, giving them information, say, on a particular exhibit as well as walking directions on how to get there.

Kveton tells us that the startup believes that the future of mobile messaging, marketing, and notifications is all about presence — not just using location or behavior individually — but having information pushed to you based on the specific tablet, phone, or device you’re using. That would mean that I wouldn’t receive a notification on all the devices I own, only the one I happen to be using at the current time.

There are obviously privacy and battery life issues attached to this next generation of messaging, which is why the startup is providing its service strictly on an opt-in basis, and it is hoping that as segmentation and contextual identification evolves, the targeting will be such that notifications aren’t sprayed willy nilly at all customers at all times, potentially preserving battery life. This double announcement from Urban Airship today signals the brave new world mobile messaging is entering, but obviously it’s imperative that the application of these hybrid technologies improve user experience, rather than overwhelm.

For more on Urban Airship, check them out at home here. Meridian here.

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