In addition to revolutionizing shopping, travel, and pretty much every other industry out there, the web and the app landscape has also fundamentally changed the way we interact with other people. And while there is real magic in staying in touch with far-flung friends and loved ones, many would argue that the changes around meeting people have not been for the better. Sure, we appreciate the "friends" that we have through Facebook, the reviewers we follow on Yelp, creators of the Tumblrs we're addicted to, and the like. But unless you prefer to emphasize quantity over quality in the people you know, relationships that are only (or even primarily) virtual don't tend to have the same impact on our lives.
Never fear, technology is here. More and more companies are focusing on social discovery in the real world. It's an area with a lot of failures (and one monster success) to date, but is currently experiencing significant growth. The landscape may provide marketers with a roadmap for understanding how - and when - they can harness mobile to create relationships with customers and potential customers.
In real life, to establish a relationship with someone else there needs to be enough common ground and unity of purpose that makes the connection stick. It's exactly this premise that drives the algorithms online social networks use to suggest people you might want to be friends with, follow, and so on. Think about how LinkedIn works; some of the suggested connections are easy; they work at your company, were in your high school class, etc. Others are more tangential, and occasionally brilliant - someone who went to your high school's cross-town rival, for instance, and then went to graduate school with someone from your college fraternity. The connections made by overlapping your various circles are pretty amazing.
The social discovery apps that bring people together in the real world use similar techniques to match you with potential connections.
Banjo is one of the apps that uses social networks (Twitter and Facebook) to provide you with access to people. One Banjo use is to find your friends when you're in different places - for instance, who's at a concert you're attending? Who's in a city you're visiting? It also provides interest-based search based on location so you can find people who like the same things you do and reach out to them, whether or not you know them. Leveraging the social networks means that anyone who checks in can show up on Banjo if they're in your social graph, whether or not they're a user.
The darling of the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival this year was Highlight. Highlight looks to provide the fun experience of bumping into someone you didn't know was nearby. It's a great, serendipitous moment, but the app posits that many of those moments are missed because we don't know where our friends are unless we're combing the social nets. Highlight provides notification of when friends in your social graph are close by (you set the radius - at home, maybe you set it for a few blocks; if you're in an unfamiliar place you can set it for a whole city). With Highlight, the app runs in the background and if someone else with the app is nearby and fits your criteria, it provides a notification.
Another very similar model is Sonar. Again, it leverages your Twitter and Facebook connections to tell you who is nearby, and the functionality is pretty similar to Highlight and Banjo. Sonar is taking an interesting approach, and looking to bring businesses in to help them connect with customers. But as we'll discuss below, that might not be an interaction the market is ready for.
But none of them have been a huge hit. It's not a technology problem, since they all work really well. And while not all of them have a seamless user experience, that's not the issue either. Any successful product has to be well made, utilize the right technology, and fill a need for users. Without all of these factors in place, it's very difficult to get adoption. And since social discovery apps work better when more people are using them, it's a chicken-and-egg issue.
At the moment, users seem more interested in actively seeking out people based upon shared interests rather than having an app tell them when their connections are nearby; potentially at times when it's inconvenient or annoying to get that reminder (such as when you're at work). Usage is growing, but it's growing slowly, and that's always dangerous territory for marketers.
It's tempting to apply this interest-based approach to big brands; if I love Pringles and spend time on its Facebook app interacting with other fans of the brand, might I want to know if any kindred spirits are around? And where the product is sold near me? Or, if I'm a Mitsubishi driver, would it be cool to know who else nearby likes the same make or model of cars? Or that someone had a successful test drive at a nearby dealership? Maybe, but until geo-social services are more embedded in our consciousness, it's going to be hard to succeed.
Most successful web-based technologies and user trends start in a less commercial space. From Yahoo and Google to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (the list goes on and on), we've seen that consumers like to "discover" new technologies, have them provided by independent (or seemingly independent) companies, and learn to use them on their own. A heavy corporate presence tends to pierce the illusion and excitement of finding something new. Once the service is established at scale, there is plenty of chance to make money on it; the challenge for the marketer is to make a bet on a new technology just before it becomes mainstream so that there's a competitive advantage and strong ROI.
That brings us to the one huge hit in geo-social networking - Grindr. Grindr's mission is pretty succinct; "Find gay, bi, curious guys for free near you." The app loads up and finds the 50 closest consumers to you and lets you view their photos. Anyone you're interested in meeting, you can start chatting and he can respond, ignore, or block you. (Disclosure: my company was hired to design and code the original Grindr app.) With well over four million downloads, Grindr is a huge success, and clearly has found a market need in a fascinating ecosystem that was well profiled by Vanity Fair. But it hasn't translated outside of gay men's meet-ups. Even Blendr (by the same company), which targets all sexual orientations and is much more focused on interests than on dating has had a shadow of Grindr's success.
The takeaway for marketers? The market is not yet ready as a valuable digital channel, but it's coming. Now might be the time to start thinking about how geo-social can work with your brand, watch the competitors figure out the model that works, and be ready.
Local image on home page via Shutterstock.
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Andrew Solmssen serves as managing director of Possible's Los Angeles office, leading the firm's West Coast client teams and determining best practices for engagement management.
He previously served as managing director at digital firm Schematic, where he played a key role in developing some of the earliest advertising models for delivering broadcast content via the Internet. Andrew was also responsible for providing strategic guidance to clients such as Comcast, ABC Television, and NBC Universal in the areas of digital strategy, content distribution, mobile entertainment, and Internet TV. Before Schematic, Andrew served as executive producer at Web design and consulting firm Kaufman Patricof Enterprises.
A frequent speaker at industry events such as Digital Hollywood and CES, Andrew is also regularly quoted by business and trade media on the topics of digital advertising and technology innovation. Prior to his involvement in digital media, Andrew lived in Namibia as part of the Harvard Institute for International Development.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @asolmssen.