Geo-Location Services Get Social

If Twitter is all about answering that seemingly simplest of questions, “What are you doing now?” then the newest location-based services are all about answering the more intriguing question, “What are you doing next?” Not to be confused with basic GPS-enabled location tracking services, the new location-based check-in services encourage people to share what they like, dislike, and generally think others might find interesting about the place they’re at right now in the context of the decision they’re about to make. As a marketer, these new check-in services, powered by social Web technology, are worth taking the time to understand.

I’ve been a fan of location-based services for a while: working in Barcelona in the mid-’90s I thought about how cool it would be to have a heads-up display built into my Wayfarers that would guide me to the best spots. The early Google Maps mashups were another step in integrating data and location, making “being someplace” potentially more worthwhile by virtue of knowing more about that place. In my book “Social Media Marketing: An Hour Day” (2008) I wrote about applications like Dodgeball — acquired by Google in 2005 and shuttered in 2009 to make way for Latitude — and Brightkite.

Applications like Brightkite facilitated happenings ranging from spontaneous meet-ups to more practical tasks like finding the nearest Starbucks or Chili’s. I’ve used location tracking services for exploration around the world, too: Google’s Latitude was a lot of fun when I sat at home in New Delhi and followed my wife and son as they went trekking around Rajasthan. But for all of that, tracking someone in general doesn’t seem all that interesting, destination field trips aside. In fact, it can seem a bit intrusive, even creepy: can you imagine the Twitter experience if it told you what people were really doing every 2 minutes? If you’ve never seen Josh Harris’s “We Live in Public,” it provides at least one take on what it might look like.

Augmented Reality: Getting Down to Business

For iPhone and Android users, augmented reality is stepping in, with applications like Layar that merge data streams and location information to give smartphone users new visualizations of what’s around them. Pointing my Android out across Lake Travis, I learned that nearby businesses have received about two million dollars in economic recovery funds as reported by Sunlight Labs “” application. More importantly, I also found the nearest Tim Hortons (sadly, it was a long way from Austin). Who else is using these applications? Read on.

Lonely Planet has tapped this opportunity with a set of guides for a dozen major U.S. cities. I can hear you saying “Sounds great…but show me a revenue model.” Take note: the Lonely Planet augmented guides are $4.99 each and they are selling. Want the data projected onto sunglasses? Check out these augmented reality glasses from Vuzix — we’re very close to “augmented recreations” of what is directly in front of us. Remember the early iterations of the online advertising application “Gator” that would replace your online banner ad with someone else’s? What if someone could digitally replace your outdoor ad…with one of their own, or better yet, simply make it go away altogether? If you couldn’t interrupt me, how would you reach me?

Check-in Applications: Social Sharing by Location

In the latest “check-in” applications, data left by prior consumers is tapped when someone “checks in.” By telling you what’s around, who else is nearby, or what’s good here these services provide information that can inform the decisions your customers are going to make in the next 30 seconds: by accessing tips left by prior visitors when they “check in” at your store or in your part of town they can instantly access a whole new set of relevant comments.

For example, checking in at a new location may bring up information about a nearby swank lounge along with some recommendations on which cocktails others have enjoyed. That’s pretty cool from both the bar owner and tippler’s perspectives: without a recommendation, most people tend to order the same cocktail everywhere (for me, it’s a Manhattan, straight up.) That’s a lost opportunity to educate or differentiate. After all, most people love trying new cocktails, but only rarely do. Way too many bartenders, when asked by a customer, “What’s your favorite cocktail,” respond with either “Miller Light” or “I don’t have one.” Neither of these is the right answer, and location-based tips left by those who actually do have a suggestion are really helpful in this context. Barkeeps, location-based services are a potential moneymaker for you!

Dodgeball co-founder Dennis Crowley’s new application, Foursquare (available currently for the Android, iPhone, and BlackBerry) has a very simple, mobile interface, and a very cool game-based mode of use. Click the application open, and it instantly locates you, anywhere in the world where 2G or 3G data services are available. It shows you who is nearby along with what’s nearby based on the venues others have added. Even better, it provides recommendations about these places: “Order the molten brownie — for two!” or “Nick makes a great Aviation.” It sounds trivial, but trust me on this: when you’re looking for something new or wondering which of your friends is already at the show or any other similar social questions, services like Foursquare, Gowalla, and Loopt that combine check-in and location with recent historical comments are the answer.

Kevin Rose, co-founder of Digg, talks about location-based services in a short clip on YouTube (Kevin is an angel investor in both Foursquare and Gowalla.) In his video, Kevin lists the things he finds interesting with regard to location services in general. You can read more on Digg, where Foursquare, Gowalla, and more can be found. Not to be outdone, location directories like Yelp are adding Foursquare-like (make that “very Foursquare-like”) capabilities as well.

So, what should marketers do with these services? For starters, use them. I checked in at Newark Liberty International Airport last week: there were dozens of nearby services listed — limos, restaurants and pizzerias, coffee shops in the airport, the President’s Club in Terminal C, and more. I headed straight for Starbucks. These services are free and easy to install on the iPhone and Android (Gowalla uses the Android’s native Web services rather than an application. Slow perhaps, but it works.) Try them out: pick one — my favorite is Foursquare — and install it on your smartphone. Find a venue nearby, and even if you don’t actually do anything, see what other people are doing. If you are a retail store or other business where people congregate, think about how you might apply these new applications to your social marketing program.

Beyond a test drive, check out what Dachis Group’s Peter Kim has to say about Foursquare. Peter takes a pretty deep dive into check-in services like Foursquare in the context of social business, and goes well beyond the personal entertainment and enrichment applications that are obvious at first glance. Tying back to my prior column, social business is where we’re headed: you can see it coming in the form of social CRM (define) and the integration of marketing and operations that comes about (planned or otherwise) when customers talk directly with businesses. Location-based services, based on a physical check-in and the simple question “What should I do next?” are going to be a part of this.

Take a look at the new location based applications: try one out, and then take a look at your own business and ask what your customers might do differently if they could collaborate with you through these applications. You might just be surprised at how useful — and practical — the social Web is becoming.

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