This fall, college towns and businesses can get smart with location data

When students and their parents descend on campuses this fall, they'll bring college towns and local businesses an array of untapped data-driven opportunities.

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Maiconfz (CC0)

Back to school isn’t just about yellow buses, backpacks and pencils. For colleges as well as the cities and businesses that surround campuses, it means an influx of students and dollars. The fact that just about all of those people will be carrying mobile devices means there’s far more data available than ever before that can help local businesses get a better handle on who’s in town and uncover potential opportunities.

When my firm UberMedia evaluated Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood, home to schools including Georgetown University and George Washington University, earlier this year, we used data showing the pathways to well-known shops there such as Anthropologie and Banana Republic. Anonymized mobile location data can tell us a lot – where people come from, how long they spend in each location and where they travel afterwards. Even in that simple form without additional data layered on, it’s powerful information for these large international retailers.

But it got me thinking that mobile location data could be quite useful for lots of other types of businesses and organizations around other colleges and universities. What if mom-and-pop restaurants used this sort of data to market in smarter ways? Or what if towns and cities analyzed mobile location information to learn more about where their new part-time residents come from?

Creative marketing for local eateries

Let’s stick with the Georgetown example and examine the area’s casual and reasonably priced eateries like Cafe Bonaparte or Simply Banh Mi on Wisconsin Ave. At a basic level, mobile location data can help these companies detect patterns in visits to their locations. But, it can do much more. It can help them distinguish between periods when business folks or other locals come by for a sandwich and other times when college students are more likely to stop in. It can also gauge which schools they are more likely to pull from -- and help determine how to further increase restaurant visits.

Having a hunch or anecdotal indications about what times of day students come in is one thing. Having actual trackable data measured over a weeks- or months-long period could present proof that there are opportunities to market to these customers in fresh, creative ways.

Here’s an idea: When GrubHub and Spoon University looked at data on food delivery orders to colleges a few years ago, they found that students ordered 179 percent more cookies than the rest of the U.S. Based on this data-driven knowledge, local eateries could consider offering a free cookie with dine-in meals during slower times when they tend to attract some college students.

Georgetown’s local Landmark Theatre or AMC Loews nearby might discover through mobile location data that, before settling in to watch the latest indie flick or superhero blockbuster, students coming from campus often stop at one or two particular restaurants more than others. There’s cross-promotional potential there.

And, because I’m a mom, I think parents should be involved here, too. Moms and dads might like to give a last-minute gift to their teens before returning home to the empty nest. On move-in weekend, local restaurants or coffee shops could aim offers for gift cards via mobile advertising targeted to parent-aged people spotted around campus. This is possible because mobile data can be linked to demographic information, showing us age ranges of device users, for example.

Awareness for schools and cities

Schools themselves might invest in mobile location data to understand who’s visiting the area around campus. Are there cities or regions with otherwise unrecognized synergy for a school from a recruitment standpoint?

Even cities and college towns can use mobile location data to track the ebbs and flows of foot and bike traffic that result when welcoming their part-time residents. And, they could learn more about where college students who are only on campus part of the year are actually from. Are there more students from small towns than in previous years? Maybe a county fair style event would make them feel at home.

In the long-run, any type of organization can apply mobile location data in creative ways to better understand customers and capitalize on hidden opportunities. And they don’t even have to pass Mobile Location Data 101 to do it.

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