It's not just about location, location, location anymore. It's about geolocation.

The explosion in geolocation platforms offers small to mid-sized businesses the sort of marketing opportunities and data that were once reserved for large companies with deep pockets. If you do business locally and rely on walk-in traffic, geolocation services such as Foursquare, Brightkite, Gowalla, and Mytown provide an easy way to promote your business and to learn something about your customers.

Geolocation: This year's Twitter

The geolocation landscape is evolving so rapidly, it's unclear just how businesses will utilize the platforms, says Yan-David Erlich, CEO of a new player in the field, Mopho, which allows users to geotag and post photos they take at locations.  But Erlich believes smbs have an unprecedented opportunity.

"When you've expanded the ability to track geolocation data from the 200 to 1,000 large businesses that could previously afford it to the 26 million small businesses, you're bound to see a bunch of creative experiences built around that data,'' says Erlich.
"We just don't know what that will look like yet."

Geolocation is this year's Twitter, say some experts. Geolocation elements are popping up across social media, including in Twitter itself and Google Buzz. By checking in at a location, users allow their friends to see where they're hanging out. The information can be shared over multiple platforms, with a Foursquare or Mopho check-in showing up on Facebook.

Often, there's a game element as well. Foursquare users earn status points with frequent check-ins at locations, with the player checking in the most being declared the mayor of a location. Mytown, a white hot iPod app that has rocketed to 2 million users since its December debut, combines elements of Monopoly with geolocation. Players "own" real-world locations such as your business and gain points from visiting your location.

Are you geolocation ready?

In such a dynamic environment, it can be hard to get a handle on what geolocation can mean to your business. After all, many small businesses are just figuring out where Twitter and Facebook fit into their marketing plans. However, there are basic steps you should consider now, says Aaron Maxwell, president of Mobile Web Up, which helps smbs extend their presence to the mobile Web.

  • Claim your profile. The first step is to establish your identity with the services and customize your profile, Maxwell advises. In most cases, you'll need to create a free account.  Double check contact and location information. "Write an enticing description that is rich in search keywords," Maxwell says. "And importantly, if your company has a website, be sure the service links to it. Most companies won't be proactive enough to do this, so including a website link will help your listing stand out." It's smart to customize your profile in Google Maps, Google Places, Citysearch, Yelp and other listings. The game-like elements of some geolocation platforms are missing, but crafting your listing could generate foot traffic, Maxwell says, as search engines take into account a mobile user's location when reporting results
  • Check out the competition. Take the time to figure out what other smbs in your community or in your category are doing with geolocation.  "You don't want to be a pioneer here," says Maxwell. You may have limited resources to devote to geolocation, so it helps to have some understanding of what works.
  • Create a plan. You'll need to decide how much time you want to devote to geolocation marketing. While the services offer free publicity, it takes some time and know-how to both negotiate your way through the changing landscape and to maintain your presence and the relationship you establish with customers through geolocation services. You can't bring a cookie-cutter approach to geolocation marketing since each service operates a bit differently. If you can designate someone to manage. your geolocation marketing, you're more likely to stay current.
  • Build relationships Erlich compares geolocation services to the loyalty card programs established by luxury hotels and large casinos. "Some small businesses will do the same thing, but the mobile device replaces that loyalty card," he says. Some businesses are rewarding customers who check in frequently from their location, offering discounts, special promotions or freebies. The ability to recognize your VIP customers by name, to note when a frequent shopper is in your area and to interact changes the experience for your customer.
  • Understand how you'll use data. Foursquare recently introduced a free analytics tool and dashboard that offers detailed information about customers who check in from your location. Evaluating this sort of data might let you look at when certain customers are more active or send a promotion to a regular customer who hasn't visited recently. You'll also have access to comments and tips people offer about your business. Even more telling may be to evaluate what your customers do when they're not in your store, says Erlich. "Geolocation is opening up information that small business owners would have a hard time to have access to," Erlich says. If you note a concert or other event attracting some of your customers near your location, you can offer a real-time discount or incentive, notes Evan Bailyn, founder of First Page Sage and an expert in social media marketing.
  • Spread the word. Use your blog, Facebook page, and Twitter account to let customers know. The people you reach through those venues are also likely to install geolocation apps and to share information and opinions online, Maxwell notes. Mention the geolocation service in emails or in brief phone messages when you place customers on hold during a phone call.

Most of all, evaluate how your active marketing through a geolocation service will propel business.  "It's not about Foursquare or MyTown or whatever else is hot this week," Maxwell says. "It's about what investment of a company's time, energy and resources will create the greatest value moving forward."