Computerworld - Mobile users are more connected to the Internet than ever. As of December 2011, ComScore estimated that there are 97.9 million smartphone users in the U.S. -- nearly a third of the total population.
Almost every one of those devices can provide its location to services in which users choose to participate, allowing them to tell their friends where they are, what businesses they frequent and how those businesses perform. For example, a retail store might offer discounts to entice customers to let their friends know where they're shopping and how good the store is.
But not all location-based services -- or their mobile apps -- are created equal.
What follows is a look at the background and differing approaches of four major social media platforms that provide LBS, with a special eye to what it all means for businesses that are looking to connect to customers. Two of the four networks, Foursquare and Google Latitude, are completely location-based; the other two, Facebook and Yelp, are social networks that have incorporated location-based services into their existing infrastructures.
The LBS story of Facebook is -- and there's an irony alert here -- far from being liked. While Facebook has done a pretty good job of monetizing advertising, social mechanics and user-contributed content, it has pretty much fumbled the LBS ball to date.
Many industry analysts and pundits thought that when Facebook launched its Facebook Places service in Aug. 2010, it would spell doom for the Foursquare LBS. With check-ins and the capability to see which friends were nearby, Places was meant to give mobile Facebook users power to track and be tracked by the popular social media site's members. It would also give local advertisers (and by extension, Facebook) access to a lot of hyper-local customers -- literally, people who were just down the street.
But Facebook Places completely failed to take off, to the extent that just a year after its launch, Places was essentially deactivated. Facebook still retains some LBS functionality: mobile users can opt to attach their location to their status updates and check in at business locations. But business participation in Facebook's check-in program is minimal; a quick survey of Chicago check-in deals yielded just five hits.
Altimeter Group mobile analyst Chris Silva sees the pullback not as a failure of the Places tool, but rather a retreat on the part of Facebook from a faltering mobile strategy. In February, Facebook's own pre-IPO S-1 filing all but admitted the flaw, which Silva pointed out on his blog.
"Sounds like a problem -- the biggest-news IPO in Silicon Valley is essentially admitting it's concerned with its prospects for monetizing mobile users," Silva wrote.
Today, Silva is convinced that Facebook must and will turn itself back to the mobile environment. "Their next step is inherently mobile," Silva emphasizes.
For now, however, mobile is taking a back seat. Facebook's "focus is on the ads right now," explains Shon Christy, founder and president of Christy Creative, LLC, a midwestern social media marketing firm, "particularly ads that are part of Facebook's Reach Generator ad packaging program." The Reach Generator program, launched by Facebook at the end of February, enables participants to promote posts from their pages and pay via an ongoing payment plan, rather than per-click.
Still, Facebook can't be counted out completely out yet as an LBS player, for two reasons.
First, in late 2011, Facebook announced that it had hired pretty much all of the developers and engineers from Gowalla, an LBS-based social media platform that focused on social-network city guides using members' photos and descriptions. Facebook did one of its famous acqui-hires -- instead of buying the company outright, it picked up the talent but left the technology and the service alone. As a result, Gowalla ended up shuttering itself on March 12, 2012.
Second, Facebook has rolled out its new Timeline feature to users, a chronological tool which has become its default interface. The Facebook location-sharing tool enables users to assign location information to events, images and statuses throughout their Timeline "history." As a result, location will become much more a part of the user's story, interwoven with all the other properties of Facebook posts.
With the Gowalla brain trust on board, it is not unreasonable to expect more location-oriented functions to appear within Facebook as the Timeline continues to roll out. Mobile users might want to keep an eye out.
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Location-based services as social media
When businesses consider using location-based services, one thing to remember is that LBSs are basically yet another form of social media. And according to Shon Christy, founder and president of Christy Creative, it's imperative that businesses make sure they have the right fit for their social media outlay.
"My clients don't have the resources to waste getting their social media strategy wrong," Christy emphasized.
But an even broader issue is how businesses can use any social service, location-based or otherwise. Jack Gold, a 20-year analyst with expertise in the mobile space and founder of J. Gold Associates, has a counter viewpoint. "The notion that business can leverage consumer-facing services is a new one," Gold says.
It's not that Gold has anything in particular against social media use for businesses, but he is particularly cautious about how businesses should go about using public, non-secure networks that were most definitely not designed with businesses in mind -- or, if they were, it would be business solely on the terms of the social network in question.
"None of these networks really have corporate-level features," Gold explains. "Not without some level of enhancement."
For Gold, the focus is not on the individual networks, so much as developing a cohesive strategy that protects the company from the many pitfalls of using any social media service. Location-based services, in particular, offer unique challenges. Privacy is the most obvious concern, since customers are often rather prickly about letting their whereabouts be known.
"Governance of policies is the key problem," Gold adds. "Users and companies don't always see eye-to-eye on expectations of privacy."
This means that the development of policies around the users' privacy (and the rest of the social media interfacing) is critical if a company wants to connect to customers using these public networks.