I've just returned from this year's South By SouthWest (SXSW) Interactive Festival and I bring news of import to all small businesses looking to attract local, in-person audiences: Get Mobile Now. This year's festival of all things geeky and early-adopter-esque was filled with a vision of the future ' location-based services such as FourSquare, Gowalla, and, to a lesser extent, Loopt, BriteKite, Google BuzzFacebook and Twitter were being used by attendees to find hot spots, action, and most importantly, their friends. And, in the process, funneling customers to businesses that were popular with the crowd.
To explain, for those not familiar with location based services, a person goes to a venue such as a restaurant, club, store, or park, and 'checks in' via their mobile phone, letting their friends and optionally their contacts on social networks know that they are in a specific location. They're also able to give a short message like 'Eating dinner.' Why, many people have asked me, would they do this? Aren't they worried about privacy? Let's put the privacy concerns aside for a second (though there are valid concerns.) Assuming a perfect world where no one takes negative advantage of this information, letting your friends know where you are is a great way to attract them to your location. At a festival or conference, this information can help you track down people effectively. For restaurants and businesses, users of these services can add tips such as 'Try the mulled wine,' or 'Special sale on Tuesdays' to help other users get the most out of the venue. Some services support pictures of the venues, or links directly to Yelp or Google Local Business Listings for review.
On FourSquare, users compete to be the 'Mayor' of a venue, and some businesses have taken note, treating people who show their mayoral status to free coffee, extra toppings, or even a night at a hotel. Gowalla's icons have been used to provide prizes for visitors to venues. Some attendees at SXSW who checked in at Austin airport were offered rides to town courtesy of Chevrolet as part of a promotion at the festival.
Granted, Chevy is bigger than your business, but all of these location-based services are looking to partner with the little guys as well. It is free to add a venue to any of these services ' and in fact someone may have added your business already. Have you checked? Are there tips or reviews of your business on these sites? Are there some negative comments? Better address those soon.
In June of last year I asked 'Does your Small Biz site show on the Mobile Web?' and this is still relevant ' but the location based services are the next thing. Twitter and Facebook are already experimenting with location-based tagging of status messages ' so if someone tweets 'Having a terrible experience in a store,' the message may tie directly back to your business. Twitter tools will soon be able to report these locations, and I've heard some are already doing so.
Finally, to the privacy advocates ' some percentage of people will not use these services. Some don't want their location known and will turn it off. There are legitimate concerns, and sites like 'Please Rob Me' were set up attempting to tie location checkins to people who might not be home, to make just this point. On the other hand, a statistic that shows the scale of check-ins at SXSW is that PayPal and Microsoft sponsored a bounty of $.25 per check-in via "Check In for Charity" on the FourSquare service, and raised $15,000 for Save the Children's Haitian relief fund ' that's over 60,000 check-ins in just a few days, at one (admittedly hyper-connected) conference. (Participants got a note thanking them for their contribution ' which helped reinforce the behavior.)
What is the future for location-based serivces? Pretty soon, the real estate folks won't be the only ones saying the key is 'Location, Location, Location.'