Prized for their privacy benefits and their facility for accessing geo-restricted content, VPNs are becoming a day-to-day online tool for many internet users. In this guide, we discuss how marketers can use a VPN to help with their work.
We’ll talk about:
First, let’s cover the basics of VPNs.
A virtual private network (VPN) is a secure online connection between a device such as a computer or smartphone, and a network hosted by a VPN provider. When the device is connected to the hosted network, it can use the network to securely access websites and other online services. Furthermore, the VPN uses encryption to shield the user’s activity from their internet service provider and government.
From the perspective of the websites visited by the VPN user, it appears as if the visit has come from the IP address of the hosted network, rather than the IP address of the user’s device. This allows the user to mask their true identity, and potentially also to spoof their location.
VPNs are available as desktop applications, mobile apps and browser extensions. Often, all three of these implementations are sold as a single VPN service. A VPN connection can be established by installing VPN software onto a device, and then selecting a hosted network to connect to. Popular VPN providers include NordVPN and Surfshark.
The legal status of VPNs varies between jurisdictions. In most places – including the UK, EU and US – VPNs are allowed by law, and are increasingly popular with mainstream users. However, VPNs are illegal in countries such as Iraq, Belarus and North Korea, and their use is heavily restricted in other territories including China, Russia, Turkey and the UAE.
The key user benefits of VPNs are security, privacy, and improved access to geo-restricted content. A VPN can make a person more secure by shielding their activity from potentially malicious users on shared public internet connections, as well as from authorities such as repressive governments; it can improve privacy by weakening the link between a person’s online activity and their online footprint; and it can open up access to geo-restricted content by allowing the user’s device to access online services via a hosted network with an IP address in a different country.
1. Access location-restricted content
How often have you clicked on a thumbnail, pressed play on an embedded video, or tried to access an online service, only to receive a message that says the content is not available in your location? If you’re anything like us, it happens to you quite often.
With a VPN, you can get around geographic restrictions on online content and services by accessing the content via an overseas hosted network.
Let’s say you’re browsing the web on a computer in the UK, and you’re trying to access content on a Swedish website which is geo-restricted to Swedish visitors. Using a VPN service, you could route your internet connection through a hosted network in Sweden, so that the Swedish website would think you’re in Sweden. Provided that the website doesn’t have strong anti-VPN measures in place, you would likely be able to access the geo-restricted content. This may sound a little complicated, but it would only take a few clicks.
A good VPN service can connect you to hosted networks all over the world. That’s an empowering option to have, given that the benefits of accessing location-restricted content can apply to numerous marketing contexts, from content marketing research to international competitor analysis.
2. Pay less for certain products and services
Clever use of a VPN could make your marketing team’s budget go further.
As a marketer, you’ll understand that the same product may be sold at different prices in different places. For example, flights can vary greatly in cost, depending on which country you buy the tickets from.
So, if you’re planning on making an online purchase for your marketing team, try using a VPN to spoof your location, and compare the prices you see when accessing the item from different countries.You can then buy the item while connected to a hosted network in whichever country gets the best price.
Air travel isn’t the only type of expense that can be made cheaper with a VPN – hotels, online subscriptions and software products are also often found at better prices via this method.
Using a VPN to buy things like travel tickets and accommodation is almost always a smart idea, but you should be aware that some digital service providers have service agreements prohibiting the use of VPNs. Just be sure to read the provider’s terms before you go ahead (unless you’re willing to risk being banned from the service).
3. Make search results more organic
We’ll say straight off the bat that ordinary VPNs are not the most powerful SEO tools for making search results more organic. After all, search engines use resources like cookies and user accounts, as well as a device’s IP address, to personalise the search results they deliver for each query they receive.
With that said, there is still some benefit to using a VPN to disassociate your IP address from searches.
In Google’s own words: “Google uses IP addresses in almost everything that we do, from building data centers and enabling our engineers to make products like Search or Maps, to getting YouTube videos to your phone.
“Your IP address lets Google give you the content you search for. IP addresses are also used in other ways, like to give you relevant results for where you are and to help keep your account secure.”
Using a VPN to disassociate your IP address from your search, coupled with other tactics such as searching in incognito mode, can help you to get search results which are less biased towards your own brand and your own interests – a vantage which could provide insights into the true search experiences of your audience.
4. Enhance your cyber-security
Whether you’re a marketer or not, enhanced online security is one of the key reasons to use a VPN.
VPNs encrypt your browsing data, so that any malicious party intercepting the data would see it in a scrambled form that would be extremely difficult to decipher. This layer of protection could help secure any resource you might access online, whether that’s company financials, client communications, marketing strategy documents, or assets for future marketing campaigns.
Safer browsing on public WiFi is another security benefit which VPN providers often talk about in their marketing. Such claims may be valid – but perhaps only to a certain extent.
Web-wide security improvements such as the widespread adoption of HTTPS encryption have made public WiFi much safer in recent years. Before HTTPS, public WiFi connections often presented numerous security risks to users. These days, the vulnerabilities are fewer, and the scope of data at risk is narrower.
Nonetheless, there are still ways cyber-criminals can exploit public WiFi connections to steal users’ information, and you may feel that it’s prudent to use a VPN to guard against these threats. One of the tactics still available to criminals is the use of malicious hotspots, some of which masquerade as legitimate WiFi networks in so-called ‘Evil Twin’ attacks. A good VPN encrypts your traffic before it leaves your device, so if you ever do happen to connect to a malicious WiFi network, the owner shouldn’t be able to see your browsing activity.
Arguably the biggest downside to VPNs is that they generally make your internet connection slower. This makes sense, when you consider the fact that a VPN works by encrypting your data and routing it through a hosted network which could be thousands of miles away. A relatively quick VPN could slow your internet down by anywhere from 3% to 32%.
Another disadvantage of VPN use is the loss of online personalisation, which results from masking your IP address from the sites you visit. Personalised ads and other personalised online content can sometimes point the way to genuinely useful things, from marketing tools that solve your specific problems, to online publications and channels that match your interests perfectly. Many users install a VPN because they want their online experience to be less personalised – but it’s worth considering that this does come at a cost.
VPNs can be a useful tool for marketers – but it’s also worth noting that the same tools can be used by the people who interact with your brand online.
According to Surfshark, around 31% of internet users now use a VPN. The percentage apparently varies based on gender and location – for instance, 62% of VPN users are male, while Indonesia is the nation with the highest rate of VPN use (61%).
Age also affects the likelihood of VPN use. Per Global Web Index, about 39% of all VPN users are aged 16-22, while just 16% are over 55. Based on these statistics, there’s reason to believe that VPNs could become more widespread in the years to come.
It’s likely that many of the people your brand interacts with online are using a VPN. With this in mind, here are some points to consider:
Take outlying location data in Google Analytics with a pinch of salt. If your website analytics data shows that you have pockets of users in surprising places, don’t take this as a sure sign that your brand will find a receptive market in those locations. It could be the case that these users are spoofing their location with a VPN.
If you handle nationally licensed content, consider anti-VPN countermeasures. Most online users with VPNs will pose no particular risk to your business and its digital platforms. However, if your site hosts licensed content which is only cleared for use by visitors in certain countries (e.g. many of the films and TV shows hosted on Netflix and Amazon Prime), you may need to commission cybersecurity countermeasures to identify and block VPN use. Common methods to restrict the use of VPNs include blocking IP addresses shared by numerous users, and port blocking.
The growing popularity of VPNs makes fast pagespeed even more important. One of the disadvantages of VPNs is that they usually make the user’s internet connection slower. This means that web pages which load barely fast enough for the average user, might take too long to load for VPN users, leading to a high bounce rate which could negatively impact search performance. If you believe your audience might include a high proportion of VPN users, then achieving fast loading times should be a priority for your website.
Every marketer can benefit from getting familiar with VPNs because:
The easiest way to get to know how VPNs work is to compare some of the options on the market (we recommend NordVPN and Surfshark), then install a VPN on your smartphone and/or computer. You may find some of the features useful in your marketing work – and the very worst case scenario is that your device will be made more secure from cybercrime.