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How Brands Can Have Authentic Conversations In ‘Smart Cities’

Real-time conditions in urban centers can prove the perfect conversation starter, Intersection's Colin O'Donnell explained in a session at Cannes Lions.

As interconnected rise of shared mobility and connected intelligence has led to the development of “smart cities,” major urban centers are using technology like sensors, smart lights, and digital displays to collect and analyze data. But perhaps one of the most interesting factors in the development of smart cites is the arrival of free, high-speed wifi in public urban spaces — bringing with it significant opportunities for marketers and consumers alike.

As the internet proliferates within smart cities, it’s effectively “reinventing information in a public space,” explained Colin O’Donnell, CIO at Intersection, in a session at Cannes Lions — giving brands, public service [entities], and more the opportunity to respond to how people behave in real time.

“We’re at a moment in advertising where personalization, connecting to someone’s life, is becoming more important,” O’Donnell said. “And then we have this rise in smart cities happening at the same time. That’s huge.”

For its part, Intersection has launched its LinkNYC initiative, replacing outdated phone booths in New York City and turning them into “digital kiosks” with free wifi — which can both take inputs (anonymized data) and push outputs, like real-time infrastructure updates or, yes, a brand’s message.

But now that this capability exists, the questions is: How can brands have authentic conversations in cities — without being viewed as one more interruptor during the daily commute?

  • Use the city as a conversation starter: As always, it’s crucial to focus on user experience: What is the journey that someone is on? Obviously, this can be complicated — but by using real-time data based on where users are accessing the wifi, marketers can customize messages based on time of day (is it rush hour?) or contextual location (is there a train delay nearby?) For example, Intersection ran a campaign for Miller-Coors based on LinkNYC wifi points that informed consumers near a delayed train where their closest bar serving Miller-Coors was — so they could wait out the delay with a drink rather than on a hot train platform.
  • Think outside the box: O’Donnell emphasized the need to ask, “what needs to be done [via technology in smart cities]  that can’t be done already?” This means that it doesn’t truly add value to use mass wifi to simply push out generic banner ads; instead, as in the first example, its about responding to a city’s circumstances in real time. Is this a central tourist area where someone might need help with directions? Or are there a line of locals waiting outside a bar for a concert? This makes a big difference; then use this information to think creatively about what kind of services people might want.
  • Marry geo-data to brand data: “At Intersection, our approach is about marrying the [real-time data we have] to the data a brand already has about its consumers to create something meaningful, useful, entertaining,” O’Donnell said.  “The advertising essentially has to be a product.” In other words, it takes viewing a combination of data points holistically to create messages that are more than ads; success likes in building something so interesting or informative that it adds value in and of itself — not just sells something.