I undoubtedly missed the memo but it’s now hip to be a naysayer concerning the future of location based social networks (LBS / GeoSocial).
Earlier 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.
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:
- You find it useful & informative
- You created relationships and connections
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
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.