You have undoubtedly heard about geosocial applications Foursquare, Gowalla, and Facebook Places, but there has been little discussion of how they are transforming the brand experience. Brand stewards need to understand that a geosocial/Web 3.0 fault line lies beneath many a company, poised to shake more than windows in the short- to medium-term. Here I’ll outline opportunities and threats and describe how you can start getting in front of geosocial this year.
Geosocial: What it is, why it matters.
Geosocial is mobile social networking with a gaming twist. Using their mobile phones, people share their physical locations with their networks, broadcasting where they are and what they are doing by “checking in” to stores, offices, nightclubs, hotels, airplanes, classes, hospitals…and leaving tips about their experiences. For the first time, brands have the opportunity to “see” what people do before encountering their brands: how people try to use products and services to create value and what the results are and their friends think. Every smart brand periodically pays “experience” firms to follow customers around for days, but these are rare six-figure propositions. Geosocial puts experience research in a Twitter format: it’s spontaneous and low cost and yields surprising insights.
You can outperform competitors by understanding the innovation angle. Prevailing wisdom holds that geosocial is about retail sales and coupons, but, although promotion can be an effective tactic in some cases, it will disappoint for years because only thin niches of most brands’ markets are bothering to check in. It’s a very small market, even smaller than Twitter because it takes more commitment. Conversely, using geosocial for research is more broadly applicable now. For example,you can:
- Gain insight into where customers are and what they do before and after they buy your product: this can enable you to change the buying experience to add relevance.
- Understand the immense power of gaming, which is inherently social and far stickier than other forms of engagement because it’s fun and confers status.
- Expand your brand’s social layer of value by enabling spontaneous physical meetings.
Most products and services are used in the physical world, and commoditization is rampant across many categories because there is little differentiation. Geosocial is a very inexpensive way to track the circumstances around the use of your product. If you sell fitness equipment or hotel rooms, you can incentivize people to friend you and put your brand into their networks, thereby learning how fitness geeks spend their day. Ditto for globetrotting business travelers. You can learn how to make your brand more relevant continuously, at a minimal cost.
Although few adults would admit it, they love outdoing their peers. People devote immense energy into building their reputations, and many a brand promise is tied to status. Geosocial applications had been around since Dodgeball in 2000, but the 2009 breakthrough resulted from the convergence of social networking, smartphone sales, and gaming, the last of which was introduced by Gowalla and Foursquare. Both confer points and badges (icons) for checking into certain places under certain conditions. Locations have “mayors” in Foursquare, conferring status and privilege. Brands can contract to have their own badges, thereby engaging people in certain activities (check into certain fitness clubs, receive special edition towels, the give the mayor a free massage…). If you think this is far-fetched, read what Manor Labs’ CIO says about gamification and government 2.0.
Restaurants, clubs, theaters, offices, airports, shopping centers, gyms and campuses all provide base products and services, but the customer’s utility/value can be greatly magnified by social experience. Imagine that you are shopping for a home theater, so you check into a specialty retailer one weekend (broadcasting that you’re considering a high-end system). A friend of yours who plays in a band is nearby, comes in and tells you about her experience, so you buy a system. She probably gets something, too. Hotel stays in conferences can lead to reunions with people you haven’t seen in years, resulting in more lavish dinners than anticipated. Brands can learn to facilitate these connections, helping customers and themselves.
Conclusions and 2011 Action Steps
- The rule of disruptive technology is that it starts slowly but ends up changing customers’ expectations, and brands that understand it earlier reap huge advantages. Geosocial will not be mainstream for many years because people don’t understand the technology and have privacy concerns. So, revenue isn’t the value proposition for many brands, innovation is.
- Social networking is the gateway to achieving unprecedented innovation, and geosocial overlays social networking onto physical location. It’s very inexpensive and interactive, so you can quickly test and innovate. You can develop a sustainable innovation process.
- Craft targeted geosocial projects this year with a fast-cycle, lightweight innovation process. Engage the tech-savvy demographics that aren’t worried about privacy (i.e. Generations Y, Z), about whom many brands are worried.
- Learn to use gaming to increase engagement, even in serious business situations. Geosocial is like a scavenger hunt you play with your iPhone, Blackberry, etc. The world is a playground.
- More on 2011 opportunities/threats: How geosocial is transforming business & government; Geosocial: ready for prime time? which includes numerous links.