The State of Location-based Services and Marketing

Location-based services (LBS), or geolocation applications, or “the creepy tech that lets everyone know where you are” is so new that there’s still little fighting over acronyms or adjectives to describe the category.

In reality, a fraction of people who have technologies that enable LBS even know they have it, and an even smaller fraction of those actually use it, and an even smaller fraction of that set use it actively.  So, for the three of you who are actively using these technologies (and I know where you are), you don’t have to read any further.  You get it.  You understand, or like the rest of us trying to understand, the implications that LBS will have on the social dynamic. With this post, I’ll try to put a stake in the ground and mark where we are in the adoption, proliferation and understanding of LBS and its potential.  Because, it’s early.  Really early.  But, it’s one that will continue to grow and change many of the tenants of social interaction and online/offline integration.

Location: A Brief History & Technology
Here’s my best attempt at a brief history of location and its technology that you’ll have to fact-check me on …. Location became relevant approximately 10 billion years ago when the earth was created and there became a locale to attach location.  Fast forward about 9.999 billion years (give or take a 9) and people are roaming the earth in search other people and places.  Discovering new continents, finding lost cities, creating beer trips in college towns.  The point is that location has always been relevant – whether you’re searching for the new world, or the closest World Market, location is important.  And, the technologies used to map and define location have become and continue to become more accurate and integrated into the other technologies we use every day.  Just as the use of these technologies will continue to evolve, so will the applications that sit on top of it.  Until recently, the technologies that power location weren’t refined, and the networks that they ran over weren’t dialed in enough to make the experience a good one.  So, to understand the proliferation of LBS, and anything that’s built on technology, you have to understand where we are in the evolution of the underlying technology.  While there are still pieces to fall into place (WiFi, other broadband technologies, etc.), the technology foundation LBS rides across and gives the consumer a good experience is now in place, and improving – which will facilitate broader adoption.

Availability Doesn’t Mean Adoption
With a strong technology foundation and a good user experience, LBS is ready to take off.  Wrong.  Just because the technologies are available, doesn’t mean people will begin to use them.  With this category, I’d say there’s almost an inverse correlation between availability and adoption.  LBS hit at the core of many of the fears people have about the Internet, generally, and cell phones specifically.  There will exist for a while a creep factor when it comes to letting people know where you are at any given time.  The fact that our phones can share that information is cause for concern for many.  But, the one thing that LBS has going for it is the great equalizer, Facebook.  Or, as I call it “the gateway drug to social media.”  With the addition of Facebook Places, that platform alone will accelerate the adoption of location-based features.  The more your friends share their location with you, the more you’re aware of and likely to share your location with them.  Pretty soon (in about 18 – 24 mos) we’ll see not only a proliferation of brands using even more location-based applications, but more consumers sharing their location.  And, it’s all going according to plan.  Technology — Availability — Propagation Across Social Set — Adoption

Location: It’s the Journey, Not the Destination
Or at least, location is only part of it.  It’s what location enables, and to paraphrase Gowalla’s Josh Williams, “It’s what happens AFTER people check in that’s going to be interesting.”  As we’ve seen with Twitter and now Facebook, location is quickly becoming a commodity.  For all the talk of “checking in,” it’s equal parts location and experience.  This is where the real value of location becomes apparent.  Whether checking in is a trigger for your friends to find you, or it’s an opportunity for the restaurant to enhance your experience, what happens because you’ve identified your location is the future of these technologies and where marketers have an opportunity.

Enter: Marketer – Stage Right
I’ve often said that location is the third dimension of social media, and that it’s one of the few platforms that get better when marketers are involved.  When done right, brands and marketers can bring greater relevance to not only LBS, but also to the locations themselves.  Part of the draw of these platforms is the element of surprise that’s possible through them.  Getting a benefit for being a loyal customer just got a lot more real.  At least, the opportunity for it to become more real and personal just got easier.  The challenge for marketers is to use these platforms in a way that’s not intrusive and to bring a real value to them.  I have a hard time when I see some brands trying to offer the same benefit they push through the Sunday circular in their location-based programs.  Ten percent off a car wash after your third check in doesn’t hit the mark for me.  Initially people may be intrigued by the function of checking in and seeing something, anything, from the business, but as we’ve see with other social channels, expectations advance faster than marketers can adapt to those expectations.  It’s best to try to stay ahead of that dilemma by starting from a place of value.  And follow the hallmarks of successful location-based programs – compelling, convenient, easy.

Exit: Marketer – Stage Left
As important as it is to be part of the location-based discussion about your location, it’s equally important to understand that these channels are best directed by the consumers who use them, not the brand.  As with any new technology that gets a brand closer to its consumers, there’s a delicate balance between helpful and relevant and forced and annoying.  The non-benefit I mentioned earlier is one example.  If you’re not able to offer something of value through your location-based program, look for other ways to be present.  Actively manage your location, engage with the people who frequent the location (engage, not harass with offers), find ways to show that you’re in tune with, value and understand these new channels.  In addition, find ways to incorporate other platforms and emerging technologies together to create a unique experience.  But, above all, be a human and bring value to the relationship.  If you’re not delivering value, wait until you can, but don’t wait too long.

Where we Are; Where We’re Going
We’ve established the relevance of location and that it’s inherent to our lives as human beings.  We’ve set the expectation that there’s a technology foundation from which to build, and building we are. We’ve established that, while location is important, it’s only part of the puzzle.  And, as location becomes a commodity, it’s the experience that’s enabled through location that matters.  We’ve also unraveled the adoption mystery and how that plays into our long-term strategy.  And, finally, we have a better understanding of the role of the brand in these channels and how to add value.  So, what’s next.  Since I’ve taken far too much room to lay this all out, I’ll save that for the next post, where I’ll draw insight from the Location-based Marketing Summit and the discussions I’ll have at that event.  I’ll meet with some of the platform providers themselves as well as some of the brands and marketers who are exploring and using these new tools.  I’ll package all of that up and offer a view of where the group thinks LBS is going.  I’ll finish with this.

I’m speaking at the Location-based Marketing Summit about a category of technologies that haven’t even hatched yet and with the experience of about a year actually developing these types of programs.  But, I view LBS like I did Twitter and similar platforms early in their development and adoption.  And, I encourage clients in the same way – experiment now to find the relevance for you as a consumer and for your brand’s consumers.  Because these tools are so new, as a brand, there’s no reason why you should have already explored the options that LBS holds for you and the connections they’ll enable with your consumers.  You have time to justify it and make good decisions based on how consumers engage with your brand.  But, as an individual, there’s no reason why you can’t create a trip on Gowalla, download SVNGR and complete some tasks or begin to attach location to your Tweets to understand how the technologies work, what’s possible and what’s worth exploring more.  Discover, learn and activate.  Now is the time.

(Previously published on Mobilisms.com on 9/28/10)

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