March 13th, 2010 No Comments

Location services are interesting, but do they have value for your business?

With the rapid proliferation of smartphones (Apple’s iPhone, Palm Pre, Blackberry, Google Android phones) people are suddenly broadcasting their location wherever they go. There’s an obvious benefit when emergency services need to find you following an accident, but it also presents some disturbing security implications. Ignoring the police and stalkers for now let’s take a look at how average people and businesses can use these services.

Foursquare logo

A few of us recently started experimenting with something called Foursquare. This company just celebrated its first birthday so they’ve had time to polish the rough edges on the service, and it’s pretty interesting. Basically, they provide two things: 1) an easy way to let people know where you are; and, 2) a way for travelers to find things to do in a new city.

After you visit the Foursquare Web site and create a free account you can download their small app to your phone. From now on when you go anywhere in the world, you open the Foursquare app on the phone, which will display a list of nearby “venues.” If the restaurant you are eating in is shown on the list, click the “Check In” button and Foursquare notifies your friends. Foursquare can also tweet this information if you have a Twitter account, and post a message to your Facebook account, so your friends/followers don’t really need Foursquare accounts to benefit.

To encourage frequent participation, Foursquare has a number of games that let you win points and badges. What the points can be used for is unclear, but collecting them seems incentive enough for now. Also, if you are the most frequent visitor to a particular location you’ll get to be “Mayor” of that place.

Foursquare depends on the community of users to create the venues – if a bar, restaurant, health club, or whatever doesn’t show up on the list you can create it yourself, and this is where the first problem comes in. People are not particularly careful about spelling, and apparently don’t even know the real name or address of the place they are eating. Joe’s, Joes Cafe and Joe’s Diner might all refer to the same place, but they appear as different venues. Users can’t correct such problems directly – probably to prevent fights between Mayors. The result is many duplicate locations, so you and a friend might check into the same place only to find you are in different Foursquare venues. Another problem is bad or incomplete addresses that might leave you walking up and down the block looking for your friends.

All of these location services have an issue that isn’t their fault. In order to get the most accurate location the phones must have a clear line of sight to the GPS satellites. If you are indoors where you can’t receive a good GPS signal the phone will use the cell phone towers to determine your location. This is much less accurate and could place you blocks away from where you are standing. For best results, stand outdoors when you launch the Foursquare app and search for nearby venues.

On a recent trip to New York City the service made it really easy for a group to get together for meals and drinks. Foursquare would be particularly useful during a trade show or convention where schedules tend to be fluid. As long as everyone remembers to check in when they arrive at different places, you’ll be able to find each other without bothering to make lots of phone calls.

Twitter also has a new location feature that sends your location (either exact coordinates, or just a neighborhood) with each tweet. Twitter is much bigger and has millions more messages posted each day, but Foursquare organizes information based on venues so it’s easier to find things based on your current location.

The business angle here is that bars, restaurants and other appropriate locations can use these social networking systems to enhance their customer loyalty programs. See the Foursquare for Businesses page for details and a list of venues that offer specials to the “Mayors.” And Foursquare is beginning to offer online tools so venue owners can see the number of check ins, visitor trends and other information about their best (or at least their most wired) customers. Restaurants, bars, coffee shops and others are using social networking tools like Foursquare, Twitter and Facebook to announce specials that are most likely to be seen by their best customers. Twitter has posted some interesting case studies about how companies are using Twitter to “mingle” with customers online. Look here, here and here.

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