X Marks the Spot

Google Map Icon near Shands Cancer HospitalGeosocial or geolocation applications are one of the big buzzwords in Social Media and web marketing these days. After being introduced via Foursquare and Gowalla at the South by Southwest conference, each of the major internet players have been making inroads into geolocation and trying to find ways to make it appeal to larger audiences – and use it as a valuable marketing tool.

Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?

Geosocial applications are designed for users to share their physical locations with their groups of online contacts. Most geosocial applications run via mobile devices – the user enters information or selects a location from a map, and their check-in is recorded and shared with the audience the user selects, be it a small approved group of friends or to the entire internet.

In addition to check ins, users can share tips, reviews, and other details about the locations and businesses that they check into.  In turn, businesses can claim venues that have been created by users, in order to manage factual details like addresses, phone numbers, web site urls, and hours of business.

A Self-Imposed Big Brother?

Understandably, geosocial applications make many people nervous from a privacy standpoint – many people simply don’t want to share that level of information with people. Geosocial has been equated to the equivalent of a Big-Brother style society – except in this case, the public self-chose to be in a monitored existence instead of the state making that decision. Apocryphal stories abound of thieves targeting homes based on following geolocation services to determine when there will not be anyone home. This reluctance to share this data might be reflected in the slow growth of Facebook Places. Growth and usage of geosocial services is much larger in self-contained applications like Gowalla and Foursquare, wherein the users broadcast check-ins to a smaller, more controlled group.

Geosocial also raises some red flags in the arena of health care and its relationship to HIPAA. Currently, the general consensus is the field is that geosocial applications are not a HIPAA violation, as patients themselves choose to check in to a location. Groups that manage a venue, however, should take HIPAA into account and not communicate directly back to patients in a public way in this forum as it could lead to a violation.

For a excellent run down on the pros and cons of using a geosocial application for Health Care, I’d recommend reading Jenn Riggle’s post on the subject on BuzzBin. (http://www.livingstonbuzz.com/2010/05/27/foursquare-in-healthcare/)

Why it Matters

Checkin Mania Map
This screen capture from Checkin Mania highlights how conflicting data and multiple listings can lead to confusion in a geosocial application. Here, we can see the numerous check-in locations in Foursquare for Shands and the Health Science Center.

Despite these misgivings, geosocial is being explored by many of the large internet concerns as a potential for getting valuable, real-time data on audiences, consumers, and their behavior patterns. Knowing purchasing patterns and customer visits can fuel customer loyalty programs, discounts, and other incentives.  It helps businesses identify potential consumer and brand advocates and allows them to receive feedback from the customer in an unobtrusive way.  It also provides customer service programs another outlet for identifying potential problems and areas of complaint that should be addressed.

Even more important, it is imperative for businesses and organizations to be involved in order to ensure that those key details of the business and its operation are correct and accurate. As listings in these services are created by users and not employees of an organization, information is often inaccurate – the name of the business is wrong, the address is slightly off or lists the wrong suite number, phone numbers or emails are missing. As users often enter new check-in via a multitude of mobile devices and interfaces, it is likely that people will create a new venue for an existing location, leading to even more confusion. The industry has discussed the possibility of consolidating all location databases into a single source file that all could use to eliminate these concerns, but such an agreement is unlikely given the competitive nature of the groups involved.

The problem is compounded as other applications and services begin to use these databases to fuel their own applications or searches.  The most important case of this is Google, which serves Google Place results very high in retrieved search results, often right after a Google Map listing; in fact, it often appears as the first search result.  As you can see, claiming and controlling the venue in the application becomes important to maintain a connection with the customer or consumer.

UF&Shands and Geosocial

External Web Services, Shands Marketing, and Health Science Center’s News and Communications are working on a plan to centralize and manage place location data and provide easy resources for management to individuals in colleges, units, and departments. If you have a venue or location that you’d like to be included in this centralized list, please let Web Services know.

Geosocial Applications to Watch

Google Place LogoGoogle Places

Google still remains king of the web. With 89 million unique users per day, it dominates search. If you pass on trying to maintain or organize any of the other geosocial services listed below, this one is the absolute must. And, as Google’s search engine increasingly gives more weight to Google Place and Map listings, delivering them over other search results, it becomes paramount to make sure this is up to date. Google gives businesses the option to combine their Google Map and Place information together to simplify the managing of both.

Facebook Places LogoFacebook Places

Facebook’s Places has not had as widespread an adoption as was planned – primarily due to privacy concerns. Nevertheless, place data is served up in Facebook’s internal search feature – and, given that Facebook has 500 million users worldwide and currently has traffic equal to or greater than Google, needs nurturing and cultivation as well. Facebook gives businesses the option to merge their Facebook Places and Community pages with their primary pages – we’ll talk more about this in an upcoming post.

Foursquare LogoFoursquare

One of the original two breakouts in the geosocial field, Foursquare saw 3400% percent growth in 2010, although this still only accounts for about ten million users as of the last count. Like its primary competitor, Gowalla, Foursquare employs game theory to encourage people to check-in.  Having the most check-ins in a certain period of time to a location awards you a ‘Mayorship’, and checking into specific venues or events can earn you virtual badges that are displayed in your profile. Some businesses leverage the Mayorship to encourage repeat business by offering the mayor discounts on their goods and services. This use to build customer loyalty has had limited success but has to catch on as a major marketing tool.

Gowalla LogoGowalla

Foursquare’s primary competitor, Gowalla, was originally seen to be the breakout in the field, but its growth has steeply declined, numbering around one million users. It’s efforts with customer loyalty programs has also suffered from a lack of ‘stickiness’: businesses and merchants have not been quick to adopt the service. Nevertheless, current users have great loyalty to the brand and still actively contribute to its database.

Yelp LogoYelp

Although Yelp does allow for check-in, it’s primary purpose was more as a 2.0 community web site than a geosocial application. It was designed for individuals to leave customer reviews for the businesses that were listed. Alexa.com ranks it as the 36th most visited site in the United States, with over 500,000 visits per day. Yelp provides an important window into what consumers and the public think about your goods and services.