Palo Alto, CA - Facebook is now in the location-based business and will allow its 150 million mobile users to check in when they arrive at bars, restaurants, and clothing shops through it’s new Places platform. The marketing community had been hearing for months about this potentially game-changing development - and rumors were rampant on Tuesday suggesting Facebook would finally announce location-based capabilities Wednesday.
And, because the social site was tight-lipped about when marketers would be able to leverage the platform, a more surprising part of Facebook's announcement nearly stole the show: Foursquare, Gowalla, Yelp, and Booyah were invited to this party. Therefore, some of the biggest winners in this development - in the near term, at least - could be the brand advertisers on those more-established location-based services. Executives from all four firms joined Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on a small stage at the social site's headquarters in Palo Alto, CA.
As Zuckerberg gave the companies a proverbial Julius Caeser-style thumbs up, advertising partners realized they could be getting improved campaign distribution to Facebook's 500 million users.
Checking in on Facebook's new platform will initially be available only as an iPhone app; though versions for Droid and BlackBerry operating systems are on the way, the company said.
To be clear, check ins on Foursquare and other services have already been published on Facebook for users who enable connections. But through these official partnerships, brand logos for retailers like Paul Frank on Gowalla could appear in a user's newsfeed on Facebook, for instance.
Along with a store's address listing, the logo could serve as a strong one-two punch on the social site, Gowalla co-founder Scott Raymond told ClickZ News after Facebook's press conference. Before the partnership, he said, the location-based users' messages on Facebook would be limited to text-based verbiage about the check in.
"In the feed story, you'll see the store logo, a Gowalla Passport stamp, the users' check-in message, and when you roll over the store message, you'll see [the store] on a map," he said. "If you can see their logo there, that's so much more valuable. So, I think that's one of the more unique things we are bringing to the table."
The actual impact of the logo-branded distribution is yet to be seen, but compared to the expected death sentences that other location-based services may have expected yesterday, it was as if they had a new lease on life.
Other benefits for location-based advertisers on Facebook, Foursquare, Gowalla, Yelp, or Booyah appear to be in the offing due to the partnerships. One, as explained by Chris Cox, Facebook's VP of product, involves users who check-in seeing people who have "liked" a restaurant or store location on Facebook."It's a different kind of complimentary action that we think signals more affinity," he said.
Still, to Mike Lazerow, CEO of Buddy Media, it was Facebook’s hour. "To date, [a small percentage] of American adults have used Foursquare and similar geo-location services," he said. "That’s all about to change. It's been clear for quite some time that no one can popularize location-based social marketing at scale like Facebook. In terms of social marketing impact, this functionality can allow retailers to find the holy grail of being able to serve geo-targeted ads or coupons to users who check-in near one of their physical locations."
How Facebook Check Ins Will Work
Cox said the number of places debuting on the platform would be around 10 million. During Zuckerberg's remarks, he said searching for Facebook.com Places - which do not have to be businesses - would be an easy task. Users will have to input a place's "name, description, and you are there," he said.
When Zuckerberg was asked about advertising, he essentially dodged the question without ruling out location-based marketing opportunities. "You can imagine all of these things in the future," he said.
Users who connect location-based services like Foursquare with Facebook will have to click an "Allow" button, which is a user experience similar to Facebook Connect on third-party websites. One of the unknown factors for Gowalla, Yelp, and the other partners is whether users will now connect their existing accounts to Facebook - or, simply jump ship and use only Facebook to check in.
While it's plausible that more users will connect the services by being presented more "Allow" opportunities, none of the parties commented on how or if the integrations will be pushed to their respective audiences.
New Privacy Issues Arise: A Picture and a Post-It Note
"We have parents with children who work here," he said. "So that's a subject we take very seriously."
But at the same time, Facebook has invited criticism with its emerging location-based policies. Its platform includes a "Here Now" feature that, when turned on, reveals to all users checked in at a place the other Facebook users who are also currently checked in there. And adding location information to the already detailed data Facebook mines from its users could draw the ire of privacy advocates and legislators.
Perhaps underscoring the company’s focus on privacy issues was a Post-It note that ClickZ observed before the press conference began. It read: "XFN Privacy Concerns Mtg is UPSTAIRS in 'Alpine Skiing.'"
After ClickZ snapped a photo of the note, a Facebook public relations staffer who witnessed the action took the note down a few moments later. The note appeared on the door of one of the rooms Facebook provided for several journalists who had traveled to the event on shuttle buses provided by the company.
The room is in the corporate campus's 1050 Building 1 location, which according to a Facebook staffer, is used for business and legal matters. Michael Sharon, Facebook product manager for Places, told ClickZ the XFN meeting was probably called to circumvent any "cross-functioning" privacy issues that integrating different networks can bring.
And from all appearances, that note was emblematic of an important day inside the workings of a seemingly ever-expanding social media giant.
Photo featuring Mark Zuckerberg shot by Adaline Lau.
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Christopher Heine was a senior writer for ClickZ through June 2012. He covered social media, sports/entertainment marketing, retail, and more. Heine's work has also appeared via Mashable, Brandweek, DM News, MarketingSherpa, and other tech- and ad-centric publications. USA Today, Bloomberg Radio, and The Los Angeles Times have cited him as an expert journalist.
March 19, 2014