Mobile Social: The Importance of Being There

What happens when you mix social technology – ratings, reviews, videos, photos, and status updates – with location? Adding location to social media and collaborative behavior can be thought of as a driver for at least three different activities:

  1. Checking in: Letting someone know that (you) are nearby and open for some sort of localized experience – for example, a “check-in” at a retail outlet.
  2. Adding context: This can apply to an activity you are already in the mode of, for example, using a QR code to access additional information related to an event you are attending.
  3. Drawing a crowd: Inviting or joining with others who are nearby for the purpose of enhancing a current or near-term activity – for example, meeting at a coffee shop ahead of movie, or diverting altogether in favor of an alternative trending venue.

Let’s look at some examples that show how to use this powerful combination in marketing.

Checking In

Technology supporting applications built around the check-in is well-known. A smartphone with an application like Foursquare, Gowalla, or similar apps lets consumers signal to attentive retailers that they have arrived. Adoption rates for these types of apps are still relatively low outside a handful of demographic and instance-specific use cases. Still, it’s still surprising how so few retailers within those segments take advantage of these tools.

Over the last couple of weeks In Austin, I checked in at every venue I visited. Other than being advised of current mayoral standings and seeing a dramatic but short-lived rise in my Foursquare leader-board standings, I found only one actual benefit outside of a rather nebulous ego boost. Each time I checked in at Lucy’s Retired Surfer Bar, I moved closer to a promotional offer. This gave me a goal that I could track and encouraged incremental purchases. Lucy’s was only establishment across the many venues I checked into – ranging from bars to cars to airports and even whole cities – that actually seemed to care that I was there.

To be sure, I do not see any reason to expect that a merchant would cater to me just because I walked in. That sort of attention is nice, but definitely not expected. Still – and very much like the underlying expectation of some response when tweeting about a brand on the social web – if I am checking in to a particular store, the question of “why?” certainly enters my head. If the answer is, “Simply to be recognized as mayor…by my 37 Foursquare friends,” then there is little value in this for anyone. By comparison, if Lucy recognizes me (which keeps me checking in) and my quest for mayorship results in my friends showing up more often to join me, then the result is a better experience for me and more business for Lucy. That works.

Why don’t more retailers use these tools? There is always the challenge of focus. Doing three things well is generally much better that doing a hundred things poorly. That said, it’s a no-brainer that most consumers appreciate being recognized and treated as an individual, and, respond favorably to customized and efficient retail processes. For relatively little cost – including the time-cost of managing such programs – check-in based services provide retailers with a way to accomplish both goals. As such, it’s a marketing channel in which it is easy to carve out experiments and learn ahead of the curve how these technologies can be used to build brand-based competitive advantage.

Adding Context

Adding context to an existing purchase-decision scenario is harder to tackle but absolutely critical. With the exception of the reliably connected 4G smartphone, the only information that a consumer may act upon comes from the in-store display and sales associate, supplemented by whatever personal knowledge the consumer may also have.

For considered purchases this may be fine. Arriving at the store, I know what I want. It’s on sale this weekend; I’m there to buy it and my real decision is “which if any optional items might I also buy to go with it?” By comparison, the context is not the same for impulse purchases of the same items. “Hey, look at these prices! And (insert name of person accompanying you in the store) we really do need a new 3D TV!” In this case, the lack of information actually stifles the purchase. Without the trusty Internet, the only thing I know for fact when choosing between two TV sets is that I will find out later that I picked the wrong one. Best Buy, through an intensive employee training effort, has gone a long way to helping its customers make smarter choices. Best Buy employees know what they are talking about and will help you. But what about everywhere else? And what about purchases like a $5 battery-operated toothbrush? Target stocks three dozen competing brands. How does one make sense of that? Looking at the display or asking someone in the store is unlikely to help.

Smartphone to the rescue. Scan the bar code or, using Google Goggles, simply scan the label. Reviews, comparison shopping data, and more are available. Walmart, built on Bazaarvoice technology, has added accessible ratings and reviews – via smartphone – across its products. Google’s Goggles is particularly helpful when selecting wine: Scan the label, and instantly read about what’s in the bottle. Try it out. The point is this: Adding a QR code, or making your product reviews more broadly accessible or otherwise making information available at the point of sale can go a long way toward converting consumers who are already leaning toward purchase and become paying customers.

Drawing a Crowd

Finally, consider the third component of mobile social: Draw a crowd. People are social, and doing things together, where they gather, comes naturally. Mobile social enables this. Take a look at the recent New Balance NYC Dash or the Mercedes-Benz “Twitter Race.” In both cases, social was the driving element, getting more people involved by tapping participant’s natural inclination to share and mobile and location-based elements adding oomph. In the case of Mercedes-Benz, online communities activated as the race teams moved through their cities. In the case of New Balance’s Dash contest, the location data itself was tapped to create a hyper-local (technically referred to as “geo-fenced”) experience, accessible only to people in NYC. In both cases the results were decisive. For example, the Mercedes-Benz race generated tens of thousands of direct fans (“Likes”) and followers, and hundreds of millions of PR and Twitter exposures, all of which were tied directly to the underlying business objectives for the campaign.

As you consider mobile social, look specifically at the three types of activities covered. Check-ins give you the opportunity to recognize and reward loyal customers and, done correctly, to tap the competitive spirit in selected demographic segments. Adding reviews and context to an in-store purchase helps tip the balance of power back in favor of consumers, making them more likely to buy and less likely to leave your store for the safety of their at-home Internet-based reviews. Finally, draw a crowd and look for activities that are inherently talk-worthy and sharable; make the crowd a part of your mobile social program and extend the impact of your campaign. Taken together, the combination is powerful.

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