- A 31-year-old woman waits in line with friends outside a new franchise restaurant. Somewhat aimlessly, she searches through her phone and finds the place page on Facebook, “likes” it and checks in to the place page, which flows into the social streams of those of her 316 friends, several of whom put that restaurant onto their consideration list for their next girl’s night out, and one of whom immediately texts her to see if there’s room at the table that night (she needs one more check-in at that franchise to earn status as part of a celebrity chef’s promotional campaign).
- A 26-year-old man has a number of college friends coming into his city the following weekend for a birthday party. Using Gowalla, he creates a “trip” in which he bookmarks the hotel they’ll be staying at, the places they’ll be shopping at, and the five night spots that his crew will visit during the weekend. He then shares that trip with his friends and, once they settle on the trip, they use the application as a fun scheduling tool to track progress (and to document – and therefore remember more fully – the shared experience).
- A 22-year-old man, freshly graduated from college, is taking some downtime while eating lunch to search for a retail bank in the town where he’s just landed his first job. He opens up 8Coupons as he walks down the street and using the iDeals application, finds a deal advertised for a national bank branch a block away in which he gets a cash bonus, with a percentage going to charity, just for signing up for a new checking account. He adjusts his path accordingly, passing two other bank branches on the way.
- A 38-year-old man is planning a date night with his wife in the town where he works. While walking to his car, he detours through the entertainment district and – without slowing down or missing a beat – uses Yelp Monocle to locate two highly-rated restaurant in the neighborhood and his price range, and searches Foursquare Tips to figure out which one to pick for great service and ambiance, as well as input on the best items on the menu. He then posts the link to his wife’s wall with a short note expressing his excitement about the plan.
The above stories are just a few quick illustrations of how the mobile and social worlds are continuing to merge in new and interesting ways around location-based services (LBS). As LBS adoption continues to spike (comScore notes that nearly 17 million US subscribers engaged in check-ins in March 2011 alone, and an Edison Research/Arbitron study found that 30% of smartphone users were now familiar with LBS) the cultural anthropologist in me started asking, “What is it about ‘checking in’ that is so compelling?”
As with all human behaviors, there is no simple answer, and behind the couple smartphone clicks that make up the observable reality lies an environment rich in social context. Paralleling successful mobile applications, the reasons for expanding use of LBS spreads across a continuum of user motivation that runs from play (i.e., wasting time/having fun) to utility (i.e., saving time/money, earning status). Some great reading of late from around the web (like this post from @stephenanderson) and around the world (like this pdf from Sweden’s Mobile Life Centre) spurred my creation of the following list of LBS archetypes (meant to be illustrative, not exhaustive or mutually exclusive):
The “trend setter” … takes pride in being the first of social group to begin using a new service or feature.
The “time killer” … looks to alleviate boredom or fill time using mobile apps such as LBS.
The “social surfer” … sees who else has checked in to a specific place, enjoys voyeuristic exploration of other user profiles.
The “mayor of players” … enthusiastically engages in competitive behaviors such as “mayorship battles”.
The “scavenger hunter” … looks to create a collection of experiences, badges and/or other artifacts.
The “status seeker” … only checks in to the “right places” and is concerned with maintaining and enhancing personal brand.
The “knowledge miner” … searches for the most recent or relevant information from LBS services to improve customer experience by gaining the knowledge of regular patrons.
The “do-gooder” … is incented to participate by a perception that their activities are having a positive impact on others, the planet, etc.
The “social seeker” … announces location in order to facilitate real-world interaction with friends or enable serendipitous interaction and connection with friends or strangers.
The “trip planner” … facilitates social bonding or group cohesion by using LBS to plan group outings.
The “life logger” … obsessively tracks life lists, captures past activities/personal or experiential history for pleasure or for “quantified self” programs.
The “discount hunter” … actively searches for location-based coupons/deals to save money.
A final wild card archetype to consider in this LBS tarot deck is the “privacy activist”, who is so concerned about privacy issues that overly promoted check-ins, push notifications etc. may cause negative sentiment or hostile or aversive behaviors that then are relayed to their social network – which is the exact opposite of the intended effect of any social campaign.
As with the tarot deck, each of these archetypes represents some elemental aspect of human behavior, and only combinations of cards provide the fullest picture of the complex web of motivations lying behind the check-in. (One LBS heavy user told me that, taking into account the many services he uses, he is reflected in every single one of these archetypes depending on the market niche and desired outcome.) Point is, in this age of games and group buying, marketers might be tempted to overfocus on competitive or deal-seeking behavior, and thus miss an opportunity get those with “do gooder” or “life logger” instincts over the barrier to sharing, which in turn provides less content for the knowledge miners and social surfers to consume, etc.
A strong focus on user experience is another key to any successful campaign. With LBS the crucial points of interaction happen within the (often locally-run) bricks and mortar world, so pains should be taken to provide consistent messaging and user experiences across both online (digital/social experiences) and offline (retail experiences), as well as other marketing channels, campaigns and collateral. Also, despite the spike in uptake described above, consumer familiarity with these services is still building, so simplicity and clarity of language, as well as some user education, can forestall cognitive dissonance (or worse, backlash).
Finally, marketers and strategists should realize that these campaigns need end-to-end operational support, otherwise “build it and they will come” may turn into “once you’ve lost them, they won’t come back”. Customer-facing personnel can become your superstar “social middlemen”, but only if they are empowered with knowledge of the latest/greatest social media programs and equipped with solid processes that are consistently applied, consumer-focused and scalable. This extension of the “hive mind” to the “front line” will ensure that the pains taken in strategy and design pay off in sustainable business value – no matter what future lies in the cards.