Friday, March 22, 2013

Don't Geo-Fence Me In

"Meme," I just learned, is only a fashionable synonym for "idea" and the various ways by which an idea is shared. For the longest time I thought it a bit of intellectual jargon meant to remind me of how out of touch I am. Was it descended from Greek mythology or a Stanley Kubrick script? Now I realize that today's technocrats dreamed up "meme" to give the impression that they've created something new and special, like the mystifying knock on the door to let you into a cult secretive and controlling.

You've got to watch those technocrats. I'm sure they are onto something when it comes to "social media" and other ways of exploiting the Internet to reach this or that goal, but I sure wish they'd come up with a lexicon that was more transparent than complicating. Nevertheless, I rather like the latest high-tech term to come my way: "geo-fence." Who couldn't love "geo-fence"? It's at once cutting-edge yet old-fashioned. It's much friendlier than would have been "geo-wall," with its suggestion of hard-time. A fence is easier to knock down, and often you can see through one. Barbs can snag you, but at least they don't much interfere with the view.

Like a lot of other people over the past couple of days - to judge by online chatter - I first came across "geo-fence" in a gushing post at the website of the business magazine Forbes, whose reports usually are balanced and reliable. In this instance, however, the post comes off more as a press release, telling without challenge how the wine-trade think tank VinTank is building a virtual "geo-fence" around Napa County to help wineries persuade consumers to buy their wines.

VinTank, says the piece, has been accumulating data on individual wine preferences by tracking photos on Instagram, check-ins on Foursquare, comments on various social-media sites and so forth. This lode of material is impressive: "By February 2013, they had records on 13.5 million people who had expressed their wine tastes in social networks," says the Forbes post. "They...know what wine clubs you've joined, what restaurants you have visited in Napa and where you bought a case the last time you visited. They know what tasting rooms you visited and what you posted about each of them," it adds. You get the impression that not only hot-air balloons and gliders are floating above Napa Valley but also the spying drones of VinTank.

The gist, as I understand it, is that all this material will be mined to help client wineries identity their most promising customers, then target those customers with come-ons tailored to appeal to their tastes as measured by past behavior, in particular when that behavior involved spending money. Thus the term "geo-fence," which any cowboy can recognize as the oldtime custom of tracking, corraling, roping and branding.

This approach to marketing is progressive and exciting, but the post doesn't explore its downside. Is the phrase "invasion of privacy" at all in the lexicon of the technocrats? What happens to this model when people start shutting down access to personal data? What of a winery who has built its business model on direct-to-consumer sales via its wine club? What happens when club members who'd rather their membership be kept private suddenly learn that their information is being used to help other wineries exploit their tastes? And why would wineries want to share their rolls of club members with the competition? Is the wine enthusiast driving up Highway 29, grateful for being out of the office, enjoying the scenery and the quiet, going to be pleased or irritated by an email alert informing him that just up the next bend is a winery with a cabernet sauvignon stylistically comparable with the one he bought by the case the last time he was in Napa Valley?

"Marc Andreessen, one of Silicon Valley's most respected thinkers and investors," says the post, "predicts merchants will understand who you are and what you want by the time you arrive. 'Today, this may feel a little bizarre, but 20 years from now it will be bizarre if you walk into a store and the store doesn't know who you are.'" That could happen, all right, especially if a backlash develops that reduces a store's clientele to so few people it has no problem remembering customers. In that case, well, there's an opportunity for another meme.


  1. Last week I tweeted a message conveying this exact question - whether there were any issues with privacy and consumer protection with regards to Vintank's methods. This was prompted by the comments I read after the article.

    Paul got miffed at that tweet, and decided to start a thread on Facebook to discuss the issue. During the entire 56 posts that ensued, I still do not know several answers to key questions I asked like,

    1. What is the delivery channel for these messages? Is it email, text messaging, or do they blast a loudspeaker at you when you're near the business?
    2. Where are the messages generated from? Are they sent by the winery/user of Vintank, or auto-generated from the Vintank system?
    3. To what extent does Vintank use Facebook to glean information from users? If at all (guessing the network is too locked down and private for this very reason)
    4. Why is it too hard to include an opt-out feature for consumers who may not want to receive these alerts?

    From everything that ensued, it seems like Paul and his crew have little care for consumer privacy, and repeatedly told me that I should probably quit social networks if I'm that scared of brands using my information for marketing purposes. That seems like a backwards proposition to me; I'd rather brands take responsibility in how they use these methods, and be aware of the intrusive nature of this entire scheme. Even better, as I suggested in the discussion, give the power to the consumer so they can encourage wineries to prompt them with an offer. For example, if I'm looking to buy a nice Cab, or do a tasting, allow me to post that message and then let the brands pitch me a response. Not only would that be way more targeted, given that the consumer is actively looking, and takes away the "contextual guesswork".

  2. Michael,
    We value consumer privacy VERY high. That being said, the rules of engagement of social have been set. What is in the public domain is for public use. If they have designated it as private, we do not have access and do not use that data.

    Our system sends NO communication. It is the winery's duty. We just notify them about their customers or potential customers with context. If you'd taken the time to read above, you'd see that we only deliver the notifications to the winery and it is up to them IF and how they want to communicate to the customer (and under the limitations of the data they receive, often only the social profile). As an example, if we send a twitter profile to a winery, they may tweet at the consumer. It is no different than if they do a Twitter search for a key term or if they talk to someone after a #FF.

    While I am pleased that your counting skills work, it seems you won't relent until every iteration of your question has been answered. So in plain language, here direct answers to your four questions.

    1. We don't EVER deliver any messages to consumers. The winery does and can choose the channel the user is identified or if they have additional data (e.g. that user is already a direct customer), any other channel including carrier pigeon.

    2. AGAIN we do not generate any messages to consumers. The winery does and they can use Twitter, Hootesuite, Tweetdeck, etc, etc, etc.

    3. We use Facebook where it is available to us (public profiles).

    4. We have already created mechanisms for opting out and I am very confident that we will continue to enhance even better customer centric tools for opt'ing out. So far every customer and winery has been ecstatic about the connecting and their wine country adventures enhanced by social media.

  3. still seems like creepy big brother watching over customers that the wineries actually care very little about besides the money. ANY and ALL customers and wineries should be personally reaching out and getting their information. The time of a winery knowing their prime customers, club members names and likes is NOT gone, but trickery like this will surely undermine the confidence that only occurs in honest transactions between the vendor and customer. VinTank is a vulture circling the herd, sucking honesty from the direct to consumer sale.