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Dear TechCrunch, let’s stop pretending you understand GeoSocial’s potential

I undoubtedly missed the memo but it’s now hip to be a naysayer concerning the future of location based social networks (LBS / GeoSocial).

grumpy-muppetsEarlier this month the Pew Research Center reported that only 4% of adults are using a service to share their location with friends and many have used this report as a catalyst to decry the potential of GeoSocial services. Today TechCrunch jumped on the bandwagon by issuing a challenge to Foursquare and Gowalla to stop pretending they are useful or fun.

To paraphrase the general sentiment, No one is using these services except early-adopters and there is no future for LBS outside of coupons and deals.

At the risk of offending the twitterati I find this thinking shortsighted and speaks to an silicon-insulated perspective.  Out here in the normal world the future of Foursquare, Gowalla & friends is still pretty amazing.

Understanding the Cycle

Prior to pontification we must understand where the technology in question sits on the Gartner Hype Cycle. It would be nice to think that services like Foursquare & Gowalla have reached the 4th stage of enlightenment but truthfully they lie just shy of the peak of inflated expectations.

hypecycle

 

The tech trigger for LBS was the proliferation of GPS enabled smartphones and we’ve been firmly fueling the inflated expectations cycle for the past 12-18 months. That rocket ride of hype is growing to a close. TechCrunch is hollering from the valley about disillusionment and the chorus has joined right in… and most fail to realize that this is only a stage and it’s a great thing for the LBS market overall.

Where TechCrunch Missed the Boat

The “Who” of LBS Adoption

Are services like Foursquare & Gowalla populated with mostly early adopters? Yes, but newsflash they are in an early adopter stage.

I’ve heard LBS executives state that they think LBS is currently where Facebook was 3 years ago and I’m inclined to agree. These social services are facing the same questions of privacy and value that Twitter and Facebook have just overcome in the past year. It’s time to stop assuming that since you heard about Foursquare back in 2009 that it should be a widely adopted and mature platform by now. When we step outside of our tech bubble we see that the general public is just discovering LBS.

In the past few months I’ve personally seen several of my “regular” friends join Gowalla after seeing the checkins I post to Facebook. So instead of lamenting why the masses aren’t checking in let’s rather build usefulness and visibility.

Build it and they will come. Want proof? Your mom is now on Facebook.

The “Why” of LBS

If I haven’t ruffled your feathers yet let’s take a look at some real GeoSocial heresy:

DEALS & INCENTIVES AREN’T THE ANSWER.

TechCrunch, and to be fair many others, are of the opinion that these services are little more than coupons attached to a GPS. This perception stems from a failure to understand that-

There is a BIG difference between gaining a user & keeping a user

Offering deals and discounts for checkins may entice some people to sign up for GeoSocial network but it’s not going to keep them active. At most an incentive may might generate a checkin once or twice but the only path to building an active user base is to create usefulness.

You may have signed up for Twitter to follow @aplusk but if you are still using Twitter it’s because:

  1. You find it useful & informative
  2. You created relationships and connections
  3. both

Regardless of how we spin it this is the true of any social network. TechCrunch says, “they’re not giving us any good reason to use them” and mocks their slogans of “Discover your world” or “Unlock your city”. The slogans are precisely the point because they go to the heart of usefulness.

How? For a more in depth explanation I invite you to read, “Discovering Value in GeoSocial” but here are a few highlights.

  • I’ve discovered the most amazing sushi that only the regular’s know about.
  • I found out that my friend @cmenking loves to bowl
  • While my wife was expecting my friends kept tabs on us through checkins from the hospital

photo 1photo 2

GeoSocial networks are serendipity enablers

Foursquare and Gowalla have allowed me to meet awesome folks and have given me an insiders guide to the world around me. In short, they have enriched my life.

If Foursquare, Gowalla, SCVNGR et al. took TechCrunch’s advice they’ll be ghost towns in a year because while incentives may aid adoption they won’t keep you coming back.

Only friends and adding value have that power.

I’ll end by referring you to this brilliant excerpt by @marshallk of RWW. It appeared as a sidebar piece on “Facebook & the Future of Check-ins” (pink box, right side) and it’s one of the best essays on the potential of LBS I’ve ever read.

  • http://twitter.com/kenosando Ken Sanders

    There will be consumers who will not grasp the simplicity behind the emerging social media outlets, such as Twitter, Gowalla, Foursquare, etc. because:
    a) there isn’t a clear-cut “purpose” for them personally
    b) they don’t want yet another technology to “keep up with”

    And that is why you see that trough after the initial surge. People experiment but never find how in incorporates in their lifestyle. TechCruch, as I am reading through their article, takes a very attack-oriented stance, and they don’t seem to understand the individual relevance to the LBS – sure they bash the badges and items you pick up with the Gowalla/Foursqaure but, just like Twitter, the technology is designed around individual preference, and after that initial surge, all that precious data is there for the analysts to crunch and say “this needs to be step 2 …”

  • http://KnowtheNetwork.com Keith

    I think you are dead on when you refer to these services adapting to how their users integrate them into their lives and the next phase of that is privacy. To ensure more adoption Foursquare & Gowalla will need to integrated phases of trust and groups of friends so people have options between fully public and fully private.

    I think people will naturally find a place for these services and that won’t be centered on simple coupons. I like TechCrunch I just think they are off base on this post.

    Thanks for reading and for the thoughtful comment. I appreciate it Ken.

  • http://ciaoenrico.com Ciaoenrico

    With all due respect, I don’t think comparing what Foursquare could grow into with what Facebook is makes valid comparison. Facebook offers a LOT of different services, and lets people create a hub of friends-only that can – if they want – only be viewed by those friends. For all Facebook’s privacy failings, the idea is still a closed garden of the people you want to share with.

    Foursquare and Gowalla, on the other hand, only offers geo-checkins. You could add reviews or photos or what have you, but you can already do that on Facebook. So why would these services grow into Facebook-sized proportions if the things they don’t do very well are already being done by a popular service that does do them well?

  • http://KnowtheNetwork.com Keith

    The comparison wasn’t based on offerings and features but more in terms of
    adoption and visibility.

    When it comes to competing with Facebook I think there is still real
    opportunity. LBS services like Gowalla have a flexibility that a large
    organization like Facebook can’t match and that opens the door for
    continuing to stay ahead in terms of features and innovations. I think
    Facebook’s opportunity lies in aggregation and integration (more of my
    thoughts on this here http://www.cinchcast.com/tsudo/110995 ). I don’t see
    GeoSocial as a zero sum game and I see plenty of room for several major
    players.

  • http://twitter.com/NukeGold Nuke Goldstein

    As an avid reader of TechCrunch I was disappointed with this negative ‘anti-innovation’ shortsighted article. Geography has been around since the Greek empire, geospatial is a multi-billion market that emerged during the cold war, and now LBS is making its early strides toward true consumer applications mostly due to the ubiquity of the Web and Smartphones (those sensors open a new world of innovation). I believe check-ins are just the tip of a very large iceberg.

  • http://KnowtheNetwork.com Keith

    I think you are absolutely right. It’s tough for some people to understand
    but we are in the dark ages of where this all is going. Thanks for taking
    the time to read and for leaving a comment. I appreciate it.

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  • http://flairification.com/ BryanJones

    I think the people who minimize the value of LBS completely overlook the fact that the geosocial apps are so well connected with Facebook and Twitter. Sure Foursquare may only have 4 million users, but those users frequently push their check-ins to Twitter’s network of 150+ million and Facebook’s 500+ million users. The tacit business endorsements that happen via posted check-ins are super valuable.

  • http://ariwriter.com Ari Herzog

    So what?

    If I’m following you on Twitter and/or Facebook, and you push such, your above statement assumes I’m reading one of the two sites when you do that action.

    If I’m not, it matters not you’re pushing the content since I’m not seeing it.

  • http://KnowtheNetwork.com Keith

    I can only speak from my experience but when I do push my checkins to Twitter/Facebook I see quite a bit of feedback via comments and replies so it seems like a lot of my community does see these checkins. I’m always surprised at the interaction and I very selectively share the checkins so I hope that encourages interaction.

    Ari, I’m honored you stopped by my blog. Thank you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steve-Birkett/100001154480901 Steve Birkett

    I’ve admittedly hopped on and off of the Foursquare bus since registering this time last year but have always felt the potential you discuss herein, Keith. Your own uses are relatively varied but have some key criteria for success in common with the most popular platforms: expanded social connections and content that adds value to a decision-making process. Immediately, this elevates them above mere coupon sites and offers return value for users, particularly as more of our respective social circles experiment with LBS.

    I understand the frustration of those wanting to understand the future of LBS immediately but just because it isn’t there yet is a rather poor case for a sweeping dismissal. Once we see a wider user adoption and certain platforms successfully managing the data this affords them to deliver (to borrow a part of your phrase) a slick ‘serendipity engine’, that’s when I think we’ll be in business.

  • http://KnowtheNetwork.com Keith

    I have nothing to add other than your comment gets a hearty Amen from me.
    Thanks for stopping by and for the insightful comment. I really appreciate
    it.