Geo-Social Nonsense: The Future of Location-Based Services and their Role in Mobile #heweb11

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Pins in a Map

image courtesy of jimmothy05@flickr

At a conference already teeming with technology and marketing geeks, presenter Jeff Kirchick may get the win for biggest Location-Based Services (LBS) nerd in any room. One quickly gets the impression he’s not just enthusiastic for the technology because he runs university programs for SCVNGR, but more that he’s working for SCVNGR because he is obsessed with what LBS technology makes possible. He just wants us to realize that the way most people think about location is wrong,

Paul Revere wouldn’t need a horse if he had Twitter

Jeff starts out by letting us know we are wasting our time with fads in the LBS world and most of the good things you hear are nonsense. Taking a look at the rapid pace of how and where we communicate charts a fascinating change in how our relationship to what we have to say and where we say it from has changed.

Paul Revere had to get on a horse to spread word about British troops quickly during the American Revolution because that was the fastest tool available. The dawn of real-time conversation regardless of location didn’t happen until the telephone a century later, and then another century after that for the arrival of email and the ability to share with multiple recipients in multiple locations all at the same time.

Now mobile technologies are nearly ubiquitous in much of the world and social sharing tools like Facebook and Foursquare and Twitter allow us to share whatever we want from wherever we want with as many people as we want without even knowing where those we share with may be, or even who they are. The whole world has watched modern revolutions happen in Egypt and Libya nearly in real time through Twitter feeds.

Social sharing technologies are “bringing us closer and closer without seeing each other face-to-face,” Jeff says, and so we’re turning to location-based interactions to meet face-to-face. We use an app to share with our social connections ”Here I am!” Or, at least we did until the novelty of just declaring where we are faded away.

“Checking-In” Is Fading Out

When it comes to popular apps, many companies have had big money and partnerships tossed at them over the years, but the effectiveness and usefulness of what they do may not be as strong as we think. The user base for social LBS is only a small percentage of the overall mobile user base, and the while Foursquare claims they have 10 million users what they actually have is 10 million app downloads and user profiles, only a fraction of which are active engaged users.

Apps are shifting away from the check-in model now too. Foursquare is evolving into a tool for getting deals and making transactions. Facebook launched the “Places” feature in summer 2010, and then changed it in summer 2011 so that now you put a location on what you’re doing, not the other way around.

The most popular use of LBS apps now is not to check-in at a place but rather to finding directions and recommendations for places near us. Jeff calls this the rule of Even Value Exchange, where users will only go as deep in their interactions with an LBS app as they feel the reward for that interaction merits.

Natural vs. Unnatural Interactions

It’s a simple law of human nature that we are more inclined to do something when it feels natural, and to give something when we feel we get something greater or equal in return. Look at the experience of checking-in at a bar on Foursquare:

  1. get to location
  2. pull out phone
  3. launch app
  4. search app for location
  5. check in
  6. reward = maybe a badge, maybe a special from the bar, which is probably a loss for the bar.

Now compare that to finding a bar near you on Yelp:

  1. pull out phone
  2. launch app
  3. one button for “bar” category sorted by proximity to you
  4. compare reviews to your needs and select
  5. get map and directions to destination
  6. reward = beer, which you pay for and if you like it you pay for more, which is profit for the bar and a possible good review from you that will bring more business.

That’s the same number of steps for both scenarios, but the outcome and the experience for both was completely different. Checking-in meant taking a series of actions for no tangible reward but the interaction itself. But searching based on your location solved a problem for you, felt completely intuitive, and each step of the interaction felt like a natural progression toward your goal. It feels so natural in fact that many of us forget we’re using a LBS app because it just feels like any number of other web searches we do every day.

Social vs. Influential

There are two ways of looking at the LBS experience:  social apps like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, which provide social utilities for sharing among friends, and influential apps like Yelp, Groupon, or BunchBall in which influence and drive behavior. Checking-in is social. Shopping with a QR code is influential.

Social services are usually trendy and offer practicality for elite groups of people like HighEdWeb attendees. They are subjectively useful, but not objectively useful. Jeff sees move to a new phase of LBS apps will build on the strengths of the social layer and how it connects us to others and then combine those connections with the influential elements of game dynamics. Sure, that’s a bit of a plug for SCVNGR — their client LaRoche College demonstrated great buy-in and positive feedback and social media traffic about challenges they’ve done on their campus not only with students but in staff teambuilding efforts as well. But Jeff sees this as a trend overall to building on natural interactions that people enjoy and are rewarded for whether that’s winning a scavenger hunt or just getting a great deal on dinner in their town by voting with others Groupon.

“Location” According to Jeff

Jeff says we need to define LBS as the fabric of any service that includes location and that is everywhere you are.
It’s using an app like SmartRide to tell you when the next bus is coming; DoveLabs map tools to show students not only when there next class is but where; MeetMoi helps people find dating matches based on profiles nearest to you right now; I’mOkay to help parents keep an eye on their teens. Consumer-based applications find their value in numbers. Enterprise applications offer strength in services.

Takeaway

Think more broadly about location. A more subtle use of location is often better — a check in is blatant, not useful. “We can and will do better,” say Jeff. The LBS arena will continue to grow and become more ubiquitous in the year ahead. “Just wait and see.”

View the Presentation.