How to Survive Geolocation’s Looming Apocalypse

Why the Industry’s Most-Buzzed-About Tech Service Could Consume Us If We’re Not Careful

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that everyone is buzzing, blogging, tweeting, and talking about geolocation. Research firm Borrel forecasts that location-based mobile spending will hit $4 billion in 2015, an increase of nearly 12,000% from the $34 million spent in 2009. With highly anticipated location-centric announcements looming from both Facebook and Apple, the buzz over geolocation is not expected to diminish any time soon.

Leveraging location will drive the next wave of consumer marketing, but based on the current pace of services and apps going to market, we’re setting ourselves up for geolocation apocalypse. In this scenario consumers gorge themselves on a plethora of location-based services and spam, gut-busting data profusion and promotional push acid-reflux. If we’re not careful, the coming cataclysm could consume us with:

  • Swarms of Geolocation Services. Already in full swing, new services are appearing with an alarming frequency. Ranging from the more popular/mainstream (Foursquare, Gowalla, Twitter, Yelp, MyTown, Whrrl and Loopt) to the more obscure (PlacePop, BlockChalk, Bump, FoodSpotting and Graffiti), services are being piled high. Gauging by the more than 25 companies that made location-based announcements at SXSW, consumers will soon be choking on an overabundance of geolocation services.
  • Armies of Aimless Apps. Each service wants you to use their app, so can the marketplace sustain a massive rush of apps? Of course not. When I sit down for dinner at my favorite tapas place, how many apps can I “check-in” with before everyone else at the table starts throwing flatware at me? Most likely one, possibly two, if I snap a photo for upload when the entrees arrive., by the team at Brightkite, is addressing this problem with their upcoming app (one checkin to rule them all). But how many apps (and features within each service) will they need to support to effectively fulfill consumer needs?
  • Drowning in a Deluge of Data. If you’ve seen SimpleGeo’s, or the visualization video of geolocated data they collected during SXSW, you can see the potential for massive floods of personal geolocated information that may or may not be relevant to your consumers. Bing recently added Foursquare data results to their maps. Now imagine them adding results from a dozen other services, or maybe four dozen other services. As a user, I just wanted directions to the post office, now obscured by thousands of user notes, to pick up my bacon-of-the-month. Does it help to know that 600 of my closest friends also hate going to the post office?
  • Spates of Vexing Spam. Why should marketers care? Consider the consumer. An innocent trip to the mall might trigger an avalanche of promotional push notifications. You check in at Macy’s, and because you just had tapas for dinner, Macy’s offers you 30% off paella cookware. The Gap sees you and sends an SMS about its sale on Spanish red sleepwear, while Barnes & Noble (a few doors down and a bit confused) pushes you a coupon for Macy Gray’s latest release. The consumer just turned off their phone…
  • Crime Cataclysm, Stalker Apps and Misrepresentation. With vase amounts of personal-location information being exposed, we’re bound to see a rise in potentially damaging behavior. Ages ago (in 2009) a man tweeted about a family trip to Kansas City, only to return to a burgled home. What did he do? He blamed Twitter. On the flip side, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, a site that displayed Foursquare check-ins in real time, essentially listing “all those empty homes out there.” The site is no longer active, but it caused quite a stir and fueled much debate when it launched in February of 2010. That sound you hear is consumer confidence gasping about the dangers of geolocation.

It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way
This isn’t the first time marketers have embraced disruptive technologies, nor will it be the last. As long as we keep one foot in the shoes of our consumers and follow some basic rules of road, you’ll safely stay out of the wasteland:

  • Respect and Delight Your Consumer. Service creators, application developers and marketers alike should have undying respect for consumers and the desire to make them fall in love with their brand by providing them with something special. If you undervalue your consumer by creating less than magical apps, treat privacy with little or no consideration or abuse your knowledge of their whereabouts, consumers will turn their backs on you and won’t return.
  • Embrace Open APIs. Open APIs allow marketers and app developers to build on top of existing services. Facebook and Twitter owe no small portion of their success to having created open APIs early on. Remember reading about tweeting toasters, plants, dishwashers and even beds? Twitter’s open API was not only great for developers, it was phenomenal PR. Why has Gowalla lagged behind Foursquare, even though many users report preferring the Gowalla experience? Maybe because their API is currently read only.
  • Choose Wisely. As part of your strategic approach, building upon a proven favorite that will likely NOT end up in a geolocation landfill makes sense. All signs indicate that Foursquare will be around for some time, especially given it raised $1.35 million in venture capital last year. Also of note, following SXSW, Foursquare tweeted that they experienced “2.4 million checkins !& about 90,000 new users (!!!) in the past 7 days. Every week bigger than week before.”

We Can Prevent Geolocationitis
Geolocation isn’t going away — in fact, it may get a significant bump if Facebook turns location on for their 450 million+ users. Stay tuned; that news is expected to unfold at the upcoming F8 developer conference on April 21. In addition, Apple’s appreciation of the impact of geolocation was acknowledged with their patent application for a social-networking app (named iGroups in the patent) that would allow users to securely share data with one another using a service like MobileMe. Apple is also rumored to be rolling out iAd, a location-based advertising service that leverages technology from their recent purchase of Quattro Wireless.

We’ve already taken our first few leaps into the geolocation deep end, but it’s not too late to refine our approach. If we work hard to respect our consumers’ needs and privacy, while taking every opportunity to provide them with brand experiences brimming with value and delight, we could turn a looming apocalypse into a land of geolocation milk and honey.

Posted by Dave Curry

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