Suddenly, there are two kinds of people. The first kind loves location-based social networking services like Foursquare. They speak in an alien language about "Mayors" and "Badges" and broadcast their locations to the world.
If you avoid location services, or are even actively hostile toward them, I'm here to deliver some bad news. Chances are, you'll eventually switch sides and become a user.
I'll tell you why in a minute, but first let me explain how Foursquare works at its most basic level.
You install an app on your location-aware phone. When you launch the app, the service figures out where you are, more or less. You're presented with nearby locations, which are mostly businesses. If you're in one of them, you pick it. If you're not, you can create your own location.
From that location, you can "check in" by pressing a button. Optionally, you can type in a Twitter-size message. This check-in alerts your friends on that service where you are. If you've connected Foursquare to Twitter or Facebook, messages are posted in your stream or on your wall telling of your location and status.
Whoever has the most check-ins at a specific location becomes the Mayor of that location. Other users can see who the Mayor is. And Foursquare awards "Merit Badges" based on where you've checked in and how often, such as "Gym Rat," "Super Mayor" and "I'm on a boat!"
All this checking in, Mayor selection, merit badges and posting on social networks sounds pointless -- or at least like a slow, boring game. To others it feels like a whole lot of creepy stalking. But Foursquare and other location-based social networking services are about to morph into something entirely compelling and different.
What's happening now
Marketers intend to make location-based social networking services worth your while by luring you in with coupons, discounts and exclusive deals.
The most obvious marketing program involves prizes for Mayors. For example, a coffeehouse might give a free latte to every new Mayor, providing an incentive for users to become repeat customers. Domino's Pizza in the U.K., for example, is doing this and will give a free pizza each week to the Mayor of each restaurant.
Starbucks has a "Barista Badge" you can unlock if you check in at one of their locations five times.
Foursquare has established branded partnerships with the History Channel, CNN, Bravo, MTV, VH1, Zagat, The Wall Street Journal and other content creators.
The U.K.'s Financial Times is planning a campaign on Foursquare that offers premium content to people who check in at various coffee shops near business schools. The idea is to hook business students on the Financial Times newspaper so that when they enter the business world, they'll want to be subscribers.
Six Flags Entertainment is really going nuts with the idea, offering a Foursquare "Six Flags Funatic Badge" and "Exit Pass" that lets users essentially cut in line for rides. The Mayor of each Six Flags park will win a free pass for an entire year (2011).