Badges, Passports, the Creator, the Founder, the Mayor, getting a Pin, picking up a raccoon..This is the language of the newest phenomenon to hit the location-enabled social media marketing world.
I am talking about Social Networking Games. No longer only for geeks and geocachers, these are real tools for seeing where your friends are, in real time, as they “check-in” to locations and share what they are doing. Since the device knows where it is, you can only check in to a location you are visiting. While mobile location sharing is not new, incentives that tap our competitive side offered by a “game” are, and this makes all the difference.
The “game” element is that you earn virtual rewards in the form of pins or badges to fuel participation and interaction with real locations. If, for example, you are the first to register a place you want to check-in to, you can literally put that location “on the map” and into the game and your name is forever associated. If you visit the most, you are awarded for this. Locations can be linked into logical routes and in-game “trips” can be created to, for example, hit every pub along a certain street or visit all the parks in a certain city.
Privacy note: The posting of check-ins are controlled by you. Obviously, you can also chose not to check-in. If you are concerned about privacy or your security, be sure to only check-in when you want to share your location with your friends. Duh.
Austin-based Gowalla and NYC-based Foursquare are the two current leaders battling it out for run-up supremacy. Gowalla secured $8.4 Million from Greylock Partners in December 2009 and Foursquare took in $1.35 Million in September of 2009 from Union Square Ventures. Both are on the iPhone App Store and have (or will soon have) apps for Android and RIM as well. These apps are fast and slick and easy to use.
I am not a “gamer” and the last video game I played was Galaga back in 1984. As such, I was surprised to find that I was eagerly checking-in with Gowalla everywhere I went. It did not feel like I was “playing”, but more like I was “using” the platform. In several cases I was the Creator of a new listing. I want to get my family signed up, so I can see if they are nearby, and link my Gowalla account to both Twitter and Facebook, instantly expanding my trusted network. It’s very viral.
As information is shared with others you know and trust, the power of the platform quickly becomes apparent, to both individual users and the businesses that serve as the real-world context for these place-based interactions. Instead of trying to explain it, here’s a true story:
Real Example: I was in little Buena Vista, CO on Feb 10 and stopped into the new Eddyline brewpub. The food was great, the place packed, and I asked owner Brian about Gowalla. He had not heard of it. I pulled out my iPhone and created a new Spot in Gowalla, describing the grass fed local beef they use and how great the pumpkin ale I was drinking tasted, and checked-in. I literally put the location of the business on the Gowalla map. Brian pulled out his laptop, pulled up Gowalla and found the entry I created 30 seconds before. He was blown away and immediately said he would offer promotions through this new platform. Here is the spot I created: http://gowalla.com/spots/539684. If you are ever in Buena Visita, check in, try the pumpkin ale, and tell Brian I said Hey!
Small businesses like the Eddyline makeup the majority of check-ins, and these game platforms can serve as a bridge between online paid search ads and real incremental sales tied to increased foot traffic through the door. Tracking this is the holy grail of mobile advertising.
Google is, not surprisingly, all over this trend and their recent Favorite Places “doorway quick response code sticker” program shows that they value the importance of quantifying incremental foot traffic/sales. Their recent investment in Boston-based social scavenger hunt gaming platform SCVNGR is something to keep an eye on, as is veteran location sharing platform Loopt. (An interesting Google side note is that they bought an early social media game called Dodgeball from a Dennis Crowley back in May of 2005 and did nothing with it. The same Dennis Crowley co-founded Foursquare.)
Remember, traditional paid search or banner ads drive click-throughs to websites, which must then serve up a store location or map interface. This works on your desktop or laptop, but is broken in mobile. Most large brands do not even have a mobile website. Almost no smaller businesses do.
These social networking games make location (and time) the primary force for interacting with a business, for the mobile consumer who is looking for single-click location-based subjective information they can trust, and that is actionable.
Business owners can watch check-ins, see what users frequent their business and when, and open a door to real feedback from people they know were there. If they choose to, they can offer specials or reward loyalty via real merchandise. Every business owner should ensure their location(s) are covered by Gowalla and Foursquare. If they are not, they should simply register and enter their own location(s) next time they are there.
Large national brands should consider the implications of not owning the input of their locations and the information conveyed. While Foursquare has recently allowed content owners like Zagat to “bulk load” locations, these platforms are in their infancy and there will likely be some exciting opportunities for big brands to participate. If this happens, the current rewards and incentives for check-ins might-well move from virtual goods to real goods in an organized way. Coupons, incentive cards, loyalty programs, sweepstakes, etc could all be tied in.
These social networking games have huge potential, especially as they mature and invest their recent VC infusions into new functionality.
They bridge the gap between “attract online customers to your website” and “attract mobile consumers your place of business and prove they were there“, and they make it fun.
Because of this, I do not think it’s a stretch to assert that these social networking games very well could be a key that unlocks the door to ROBO (Research Online Buy Offline) quantification.