Verizon Uses Phone Data to Connect Consumer Dots for NBA Teams, Sponsors

Precision Marketing Insights Offering Service to Entertainment Venues

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Verizon has a location-data tracker and sponsorship-measurement tool in the pockets of millions of consumers: Verizon Wireless-enabled phones. So far it has used them to help measure the impact of its own marketing efforts, such as its sponsorship of IndyCar.

Now Verizon's Precision Marketing Insights division, which it created last year, aims to offer the service to sports clubs and venues. The idea is to help teams and arenas learn more about event attendees, connecting the dots between sponsor messages at the game and visits to sponsor locations afterwards.

The US Airways Center, where the NBA's Phoenix Suns play.
The US Airways Center, where the NBA's Phoenix Suns play.

The National Basketball Association's Phoenix Suns tested the service last season, and the Portland Trail Blazers are considering a partnership with the telecom's insights business.

Verizon sought to attract sports teams and venues as early clients of the service, said Colson Hillier, VP of Verizon Precision Market Insights, because it's difficult to measure accountability of sponsorship messages -- just think of the signs seen along the perimeter of a baseball field or high atop a basketball court.

"As media becomes more and more accountable to results, sponsorships are an area where it's been difficult to tie results to dollars spent," he said.

Real-time data
The Suns are continuing a close relationship with Verizon, getting Precision Market Insights data in real time, according to Dan Costello, the team's VP-marketing of partnership sales and activation. In the past, the team would rely on data reports generated quarterly.

Mr. Hillier calls the service "a byproduct of being a network operator." Because they are regularly pinging Verizon's network in order to operate, Verizon Wireless-enabled devices can be linked directly to specific locations. "We can tie a device back to the cell towers which it registers against," said Mr. Hillier.

Verizon uses that granular location data to keep track of which Verizon Wireless-enabled devices were in a sports arena, or near it, or at a particular fast food restaurant or car dealership. Though Verizon holds on to that device-identifiable data, it provides a more general view to its clients after "hashing" or anonymizing the data. Clients like the Suns end up with aggregated data on the types of people who visited a venue and later visited a sponsor's place of business. Verizon layers on Experian profile data to segment consumers demographically. For example, it can report which percentage of an audience segment who attended a game then visited a sponsor's burger joint at a particular time on a given day afterwards.

The Suns worked with Verizon to measure the effect of sponsorships from advertisers including Jack in the Box during the team's trial last year, according to Zaheer Benjamin, the team's VP-business planning and basketball analytics, who spoke about the effort during a panel at the 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

"We want to be able to demonstrate the benefit and lift to our partners so … we're able to track the activity of the folks who are at the stadium on qualifying events, what they do the day afterwards," Mr. Benjamin said during the conference panel. "What we found is a significant lift in in-store activity in those Jack in the Box stores the day after."

Jack in the Box is no longer a Suns partner.

A Verizon case-study infographic about the Suns trial notes that an unnamed fast food eatery "experienced an average increase of 8.4% in traffic following promotional games," and states that Verizon provided the team with demographic and location data, mobile usage information, and campaign response data.

Could work for retailers
While Verizon has gone after entertainment-venue clients, the service could work directly for a retailer, said Mr. Hillier. "There's no reason a retailer couldn't try to understand what's happening around their location," he said.

The NBA's Trail Blazers have discussed embarking on a similar initiative with Verizon but nothing is finalized, said Vincent Ircandia, VP-business analytics with the team. Before anything is implemented, the team aims to complete installation of around 400 antennas in the Moda Center, its home in Portland, Ore. Indeed, without these new mobile signal receptors, large arenas like the Moda Center, which holds around 20,000 people, have such a high concentration of mobile signals that they create dark spots, preventing carriers from tracking location data or delivering some text messages and tweets.

In addition to illuminating consumer response to sponsor messages, Verizon aims to fill in the blanks for venues on who's coming to their events. Oftentimes one person buys multiple tickets, in which case teams and venues don't know who all of the attendees are. The secondary ticket market only obscures their view more.

"There's a lot of value in understanding how often a ticket gets handed off before somebody actually gets here," said Mr. Costello.

Calling the Suns "leaders in the space," Mr. Ircandia said of the Precision Market Insights service, "teams are chomping at the bit for this capability."

Verizon would not reveal how long it stores the data tying devices to specific locations; however, a company spokeswoman added, "we keep the information as long as is reasonably necessary for business purposes."

Slow roll-out
"We've been sitting on this data for a long time," said Stephanie Bauer Marshall, director of Verizon Precision Market Insights, during the MIT Sloan conference. "It took us awhile to get people comfortable -- mainly our executives, and obviously the Hill and everyone else -- around, 'Could we actually use this data?'" she continued. "And so we spent a lot of time looking at the privacy issues and how can we care for our brand in such a way that we're respecting that relationship with the consumer and do it responsibly…. Once you get over the privacy hurdle there is a huge opportunity."

Verizon notifies consumers of its data collection and use in its terms and conditions, but, according to Mr. Costello, there are no indications at Phoenix Suns games that the tracking is occurring or that aggregate information tracing people's locations is provided to the team or its sponsors.

"This is new data in the marketplace. There's not a whole lot of infrastructure behind it," said Mr. Hillier. "Right now we're working to round out that value proposition." As Verizon speaks with "various" potential Precision Market Insights clients, he said, the carrier continues working with the Suns.

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