Location-based services allow you to report your current location in real time to a given platform. This is usually done by checking into locations -- such as restaurants, retail shops, airports -- manually from a smartphone. Inevitably such services will become more sophisticated as GPS data improves, allowing you to track your movements and checking you into locations automatically.
Foursquare, probably the best-known dedicated location-based service, topped 10 million users this week, and handles about 3 million user check-ins daily. While it has yet to turn a profit, it reportedly raised $50 million in funding Friday. Meanwhile, the company announced a deal with American Express on Thursday that offers discounts to credit card holders for linking their cards with their Foursquare accounts. In a test deal earlier this year in Austin, Texas, users reportedly spent an average of 20 percent more at local businesses.
Here are some of the notable players in the location-based space, and what their services can do for your business.
The company provides incentives for users by offering daily "mayor" status for checking in frequently at a given location. The person with the highest check-ins becomes "mayor" of that venue, at least until being dethroned by another user. Foursquare also offers badges, from "Newbie" to "Superstar", depending on usage. And now its Checkmate app checks you into locations automatically when it detects you've arrived.
Business Upside: The partnerships Foursquare has made with large brands provide an idea of the utility it provides businesses. As a small or medium sized business owner, you have the same access to the technology that's checking millions of users in to local businesses around the country. Simply set a deal -- such as giving a free coffee with the purchase of a pastry to customers who check in on Foursquare -- let your staff know, and get the word out. Those who use the service and redeem the deal may enjoy a feeling of exclusivity, and tell their friends.
Starbucks was an early adapter of this strategy, offering a "barista" badge to those with more than five check-ins at different locations. Starbucks then offered the "mayors" off each location a free Frappuccino. RadioShack did something similar, though less creative, and offered new customers a 10 percent discount if they check into a store using the service.
2. Google Maps
We normally think of Web mapping services as a staple necessity to get from point A to point B. But when Google Maps added check-ins to let users rate and review locations in real time, it further blurred the distinction between a map service and a social location service. The feature works for Android devices and syncs with Latitude, Google's Foursquare duplicate. Each time a user checks in via Google Maps, they're given options to share their location with their friends on Latitude or to post it publicly.
Business Upside: While Latitude doesn't offer notable improvements over Foursquare, having check-ins available to the wider public via Google Maps -- and its 200 million users -- is a potential way to reach would-be customers who don't use social networks at all, and are simply utilizing the map service for directions.
3. Facebook Places
The basic features of Facebook Places are similar to those of Foursquare without the "mayor" gimmicks: Check into a place, and it shows up on your NewsFeed, similar to the process of "Liking" a page.
Business Upside: Facebook Places has the advantage of being Facebook's native location feature. So while Foursquare hit the 10 million user mark, Facebook has over 600 million users (not all using Facebook Places of course, for which the company hasn't disclosed numbers). But still, investing time learning Facebook's ecosystem is probably safer than pouring it into growing, but still unprofitable company like Foursquare.
Facebook allows you to merge your company's Facebook Page with the location-based page, which means that users don't just see a location "dot" on a map marked with your company's name on it. Also, when users check into a business, it appears on their news feed, potentially attracting more views. You can currently use Facebook Places like you would Foursquare--by offering deals and freebies as rewards to customers checking in. In the near future however, you'll likely be able to purchase highly geo-targeted ads, served in real time. Imagine offering a deal on a competing product to someone who has just checked in at a business down the street.
This infant company provides "ambient" geolocation services for a slew of needs. What are "ambient" geolocation services? Well, say you always forget milk when you're grocery shopping. You can use Geologqi's notes feature to write yourself a reminder note, and then ping your local grocery store. Next time you walk in, the app will automatically activate and the note will appear, reminding you, "Get Milk!" In other words, ambient technology takes into consideration factors in the environment--in this case, your location.
Business Upside: The company offers its ambient platform for commercial use. Of course, it won't let you bombard pedestrians outside your business with intrusive freebie offers, but as ambient technology becomes more normalized, users will become more susceptible to opting in for such services. For now however, the platform is still new and mostly populated by early adopters. This is good because those folks usually set trends in their digital communities; it's not so good because these communities are still small.
Where to Start
All of this geolocation talk can seem overwhelming for a business owner looking to get the word out. Firstly, don't get bogged down by the options. If your company already has a large Facebook presence, start playing around with Facebook Places. If your location is hard to find, or your demographic older or otherwise less likely to be on social networking sites, jump onto Google Maps.
Second, these services are not reserved for the Starbucks and RadioShacks of the world. Though small businesses may have less time and resources to put towards the services, they are free and generally simple to use. If I walk into RadioShack for example, all I need to do is show the cashier that I checked into the location on Foursquare, and the store would deduct 10 percent. That simple.
The rapid rise of Foursquare and the introduction of similar services by bigger players demonstrate that geolocation services are here to stay. So, while many small businesses will initially feel lost in the space, it's a good idea to get comfortable early on. Remember how bizarre social media felt at first? Well, it'll be kind of like that.
3:21 p.m. PT: This post has been updated to include information about Foursquare's latest round of funding.