Alex Steer

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Are location-enabled social networks a golden opportunity for marketers? Brian Solis says yes, by virtue of engagement potential; Forrester says no, by virtue of demography. So I'll say not yet, by virtue of network effects.

In a nutshell, I argue this. For now, I'm not sure anyone's found the extra benefit that comes from marketing in an environment that combines geolocation and social network effects (as opposed to one or the other). In the future, they may, but I suspect they'll concentrate their efforts on already-massive social networks (e.g. Facebook) and sharing platforms (e.g. Twitter) as they add geolocation functions.

A couple of months back someone was poking round in the code that underlies the mobile version of Facebook, and noticed they'd built in support for location-based features. Facebook finally went public with this in late June, though so far not much has been revealed.

Twitter added a geo-location tagging option to tweets in November 2009, and last month extended this feature under the name Twitter Places, making it easier for mobile Twitter users to 'tag' the location they're tweeting from.

So far one of the big drivers of this behaviour (by social media channels and users) has been technology – geo-location is pretty straightforward with many smartphones, and still fairly novel. And geolocation functionality is increasingly standard. Here in South Africa, more than 10% of phones sold this year had GPS built in. (I'd love to tell you the source for that, but I've lost it. Sorry.)

It still needs to be genuinely useful, though, and we're seeing a lot of really useful applications for geolocation functionality. We're moving past the novelty-value stage of geolocation.

However, with a few notable exceptions, like the dubiously brilliant 'Please Rob Me' site, the combination of geolocation and social networks doesn't yet offer much more than you can achieve with an iPhone running Google Maps, from a utility point of view. Most of the best location-enabled apps do not make use of social network effects, even if they make use of social sharing effects like tagging and notation.

So far geolocation + social networking hasn't meant business, aside from a few 'look, we're on this thing' promotions (e.g. Starbucks' Foursquare promotion). Foursquare's just hit two million members, but it's still functionally pretty niche, and others (e.g. Gowalla, Loopt) are way behind. No-one really knows what they're for, except fun.

Foursquare gets most of its inbound referred traffic from Facebook, which is one of several reasons for suspecting that it may get hit very hard by the arrival of Facebook location features.

That said, so far brand activity on Foursquare and the like has been very promotional (come here, buy stuff, get discounts, etc.). So compared to a lot of 'fan engagement' activity on Facebook it's actually pretty measurable (for brands) and pretty useful (for consumers). So maybe geolocation will become a way for consumers to get better value out of brands in social media - effectively, by stalking them for deals.

I'm not sure I'd be rushing to tell any brand to get on Foursquare, though I'd certainly encourage brands who are interested in/insistent on 'doing social media' to see if location features might provide them with a way of adding some utility. There's an obvious applicability of geo-location for retailers ('we're nearby') and FMCG ('available here'). I'm unsure how much value is added by social network effects ('5 people you know visited this bar last week'), though.

I'm happy to be wrong, though. Anyone got any great examples of geolocation and social networking making themselves useful together?

# Alex Steer (27/07/2010)