‘Rate your experience at Albertsons’ your phone says. How did they know you were there?

A recent “rating” survey seen on a Samsung smartphone in Gig Harbor.
A recent “rating” survey seen on a Samsung smartphone in Gig Harbor. Staff writer

Peggy Ross of Port Orchard went to the Gig Harbor Applebee’s recently and came away with an advertisement on her smartphone, whether she wanted it or not.

“It came up with a symbol showing a picture of Applebee’s and said, ‘Rate and review. Help others visiting Applebee’s.’ 

The promotion kept appearing on her LG phone even after she turned it on and off “at least 20 times,” Ross said. It finally went away after “maybe five days,” she said.

Ross later had a similar experience after visiting the Port Orchard Walmart. A new notification on her phone asked her to rate the store “and let everyone know you visit Walmart,” she said.

That one went away soon after she saw it.

The advertising strategy — making use of what’s known as “geofencing” — is a way marketers are trying to reach a broader audience.

The technology targets people with GPS activated on their smartphones when they’re near a particular business. The purpose is to push notifications, advertisements or, in Ross’ case, a survey or request for a rating.

There also are personal versions of geofencing when, for instance, you set up home automation to have the lights turn on when you pull in the driveway of your house.

“The industry has complicated the meaning of this tech but it simply means using GPS signals to trigger a ‘response’ when someone enters or leaves a specific area,” said Kami Kauzlarich with Centro, which works in the field of digital ad planning and buying. She responded to questions via email recently from The News Tribune.

“The size of the fenced area depends on location,” Robyn Fischer, media director, said in an online guide to geofencing for Be Found Online, an international digital marketing agency. “It could be a one-mile radius in a city, or walking distance. In rural areas, it could be a much wider area.”

Because many apps won’t function without GPS, Kauzlarich said, “99 percent of users do have this enabled.”


For advertisers, geofencing is an easy way to send ads, surveys or notifications to customers either through downloaded retail apps or map apps that detect your location.

“Hyperlocal targeting is very prominent these days on all mobile devices,” Kauzlarich said.

Surveys and ratings are examples of that.

“The survey could be targeting local restaurants in the area, which would trigger that survey to appear, as an advertisement, when the user is at the restaurant or leaves the restaurant,” Kauzlarich wrote.

Applebee’s declined to discuss its local geofencing efforts but a search online for retailers and restaurants using the capabilities shows no shortage of businesses and nonprofits trying them.

The Albertsons grocery store in Gig Harbor appears with similar rating queries through Google Maps. Walmart, Denny’s and Goodwill have used mobile marketing in different markets, with one type being the notification Ross received with her Walmart encounter.

In addition, according to, “Walmart’s app has a store mode that, among other things, responds to geofencing around stores, and delivers coupons and e-receipts.”

The cosmetics chain Sephora has used it for reminders about those gift cards you could spend when you’re near a store.

Walgreens, Taco Bell, Uber and the History Channel (if you checked in at a historic site on Foursquare) have been part of the geofencing world as well.

“It is important that consumers realize that many of the apps that they installed are effectively giving permission to geofencing and other forms of invasive advertising,” Varun Kohli, senior director of integrated marketing at Symantec software, told The News Tribune.

“The information in regards to those missions is often contained in the terms of service when the user agrees to downloading a free application.”

Robert Siciliano, CEO of, reinforced that point.

“When users are downloading free mobile applications,” he said, “they need to recognize that they are the product in that exchange, and they are giving up a certain amount of their privacy in regard to their personal identifying information.”

As Ross’ experience shows, a rating system or survey request pushed to a phone from a vendor might not be the most satisfying experience for a customer.

Kauzlarich was quick to pick up on that:

“As a marketer,” she said, “I would not advise any brand to use an intrusive ad or survey that may disrupt a user’s experience, cause confusion or just try to trick them to fill something out.”


Apple and Android smartphones can provide other forms of geofencing that you can use.

For example, an Apple iPhone paired with a vehicle can tell you when you start your car how long your commute to or from work will be via Apple Maps.

Apple introduced geofencing to its phones with iOS5 in 2013. With iOS6, it allowed users to set up reminders for when they entered or left a geofencing zone. “Buy milk at grocery store,” for example, or remember to take your briefcase when you leave home.

Android users most likely will experience geofencing through the apps on their phones, such when they set up a smart-home hub. This allows the hub to detect when you’re near your home, and triggers things to start happening, such as lights coming on or the garage door opening.


In the advertising world, geofencing uses aren’t always tied to an app.

“Androids do allow ‘pop-ups’ on their operating systems,” Kauzlarich said. “Standard geofenced ads should not be intrusive and don’t actually require a retailer’s app.”

Companies can reach Android smartphone operating systems with the request for “ratings” tied to Google Maps; iPhones can receive similar push notifications through downloaded apps.

For example, some store apps ask for permission to send notifications and know your location.

“Vendors are trying to reach people conveniently,” Kohli said. “It is convenient, but it’s a back door” to your phone.

And that can leave your phone vulnerable to hackers.

Consumers should pay attention to what they download on their phones in our geofenced world, Siciliano said.

“Any invasive technology that makes its own decision to install itself on a user’s device should be considered malicious,” he wrote via email in response to questions from The News Tribune.

Kohli offered some advice:

“Don’t click, install or connect to something you don’t know is safe. Only install apps from reputable app stores: Apple or Google. No third-party store downloads.”


When you download apps you can say no to notifications, though many people say yes to being notified of deals through retailers.

“If the retail store owns an app, there is obviously a lot more that they can do to engage with the user, such as sending push notifications to ask the user to re-engage within the app,” Kauzlarich noted. “ ... It would appear just as a notification from Facebook would appear on your phone.”

Ross doesn’t have an app for Applebee’s or Walmart on her phone and she didn’t respond to either of their requests.

But she has some advice for others who don’t want ads, notifications or survey requests showing up on their phones:

“I just want people to know to turn off their phones when they go someplace,” she said.

Kohli said that’s pretty extreme, and suggested being more selective in your phone’s location settings. You also can turn off rating queries when they appear through Google Maps, he noted.

“Just make sure your location is seen by the people you want,” he said.

Debbie Cockrell: 253-597-8364, @Debbie_Cockrell

More help for your phone

Instructions to remove “Lock Screen Ads” on Android devices (scroll to bottom of article)