Where R U?

29 01 2011

When I was a teenager busy trying to spread my wings, my parents would require me to find a phone (any phone…) to check in with them periodically. I really don’t think I was any different from my friends, but I sure recall it as being embarrassing every time I had to phone home.

Maybe it was the constant repetition of checking in that produced my current behaviors. Maybe it was the social scarring that occurred, but those wounds really never did heal. I don’t know. But I sure do find myself checking in a lot these days.

At Gowalla, that is.

Gowalla is one of several location-based social networking sites that members access via their smartphones to check in every time they go somewhere. The result is the mother lode of crowdsourced data, according to Scott Raymond, co-founder and CTO of Gowalla.

I had the opportunity to hear Scott address a large break-out audience at the Austin Rocks 2011 advertising conference yesterday. His session was without doubt the best-attended of the day. Just mention “social network” and “location” in one sentence, and…well, he had me at “social.”

Thus far Gowallians (my word) have created 2.5 million places around the world, and posted 1 million photos. Users hail from 170 different countries; 60% of all posts are from the US. Scott stressed that Gowalla is all about “macroscopes,” which is what “many small actions look like when added together.” These macroscopes are pushed to our Facebook and Twitter accounts a piece at a time.

Users are issued a “passport,” which is but a metaphor. In that passport are all the little icons, stamps and pins we have earned along the way, a virtual record of our comings and goings. But this passport is more than just a log book. It is also the vehicle through which we share experiences, photos, comments and recommendations. In fact, I learn a lot about cool places thanks to my other Gowalla friends and their check-ins.

Scott said the impetus for their service came from the Samoan tongue. To hear him tell it, when Samoans meet, they don’t ask “What up?” or “How’s it going?” Instead, they ask variants of “Where are you going?” and “Where have you been?”

Which got Scott to thinking, because he had seen a stat that said about 55% of all text message conversations start with “Where R U?”

While Gowalla is still in its infancy as both company and provider of location-based networking (read: they haven’t monetized it very much yet), they do have a fairly clear picture of what it can ultimately do: (1) Drive traffic, (2) Gather data and instill loyalty, and (3) Build awareness and branding.

And he is right. Imagine the data Gowalla is sitting on regarding the places we frequent. And imagine what could be gleaned about a person by not only analyzing where they are now, but also where they were before, and where they went next.

Gowalla has the ability to do the following:

  1. Proximity marketing. Imagine checking in at a park, concert, sporting event. A Gowalla corporate client could pay to have hit with a screen (and coupon) that says, “Hey, have fun at the concert, but afterward, why not stroll on over to…”
  2. Rewards. I am a self-confessed Red Robin addict. It sure would be nice to be rewarded for that. Instead of having to carry yet another plastic reward card in my billfold, why not let me show my check-in “receipt” on my screen to redeem for rewards?
  3. Piggybacking. Scott told the story of how they worked with an iPhone case manufacturer who paid to have a screen appear each time someone checked in at an Apple Store. Oh yeah. Very clever! It’s not necessarily competing, just complementing. And since Apple would never let a vendor advertise in its stores, it is probably the only way a company could get its voice heard above that of Steve Jobs.
  4. Hijacking. This is where it gets ruthless. Cold. Cunning. It hasn’t happened yet, but it could. Imagine Amazon, for example, paying Gowalla to intercept (and redirect) people who check in at Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-A-Million, etc. “Hey, don’t buy that book just yet! Download our new price check app to see just how cheap we’ll sell it!”

Thus far, I have volunteered 292 (and counting) check-ins that reveal my consumer behavior, my likes, my dislikes, my photos, my recommendations. Of course, I have the luxury of saying I am exploring new territory so that I might better teach my students as well as help clients. I realize that the ever-present naysayers say services like Gowalla only facilitate stalking. Maybe so. But I am convinced we have seen only the tip of the iceberg of location-based social networking. Services like Gowalla, Foursquare, Facebook Places, Whrrl and Loopt are going to play an ever larger role in our digital lives.

Sure beats having to tell Mom and Dad every time you do something.

Wait…if only the parental unit would get with it, buy a smartphone and follow us on Gowalla, they would know each and every time we arrive somewhere.

On second thought, there may be some things that just aren’t worth sharing.

Dr “Frequent Traveler” Gerlich



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