Geolocation applications myths and truths

Geolocation applications myths and truths

Oh, geolocation applications. Pretty much everyone has an opinion about Foursquare and the like and everyone has engaged in conversations about check-ins, badges, mayorships, local and loyalty initiatives. At least among the people who get paid to spend 24 hours a day playing with gadgets and applications or selling such applications to clients. However, I am not sure we understand well enough how mass consumers (read people who don’t talk about advertising every single day) actually use location-based services.

Myth #1: Location-based services are games.

Yes, many of the 6000 iPhone, 900 Android and 300 BlackBerry apps are games. Those are the ones that get the most media attention and spend tons of money on PR (not a bad thing). And many of the surveys that aim to find how many people actually use location-based services focus on asking people whether they check-in using Foursquare or Gowalla. However, there are many other uses of geolocation applications: local weather, GPS, traffic updates, etc. As a matter of fact, the most popular free application on the Android platform is a location-based service that isn’t a game. Imagine that. Yes, Google Maps has added check-ins and offers tied to check-ins, but those few game mechanics don’t make the service a game. It’s a great example that location-based services can be anything, not just a meaningless game. Wait, did I really say that? Oh, snap.

Myth #2: People use geolocation services to earn badges and mayorships.

If you accept my premise that location-based services are more than just games, take a look at this table from a Microsoft research from December 2010. It shows the top activities for which geolocation applications are used. Only six out of the top 15 activities are available on games like Foursquare and Gowalla.

Even if you want to think of geolocation applications as simple games, earning badges and mayorships isn’t the main reason why people play. According to beyond, for both, early adopters and mass consumers, the single biggest reason why people check-in is deals and discounts. For early adopters, the second most important motivator is to meet friends, while mass consumers also check-in to learn more about the location. For 99% of consumers simply getting a badge or becoming a mayor is not a motivation to check-in.

Myth #3: Foursquare is the king.

If you look beyond the check-ins, the crown clearly belongs to Google Maps with 200 million active users on mobile devices. Just for reference, Foursquare has 7.5 million members; no one really knows how many active users. If we are still talking about simple check-ins then Facebook Places is the king with 90% of people who have checked-in though any service have done so using Facebook Places and only 22% using Foursquare. With its reach and high mobile adoption — throw in the convenience of not needing another account to maintain — Facebook Places will definitely remain the number one check-in service.

Myth #4: Location-based services are not for NGOs.

The perception is that geolocation apps are beneficial only for businesses and provide little value for non-for-profit organizations. However, such applications can be great for increasing awareness, activating communities and managing volunteers. A great example is Urban Ministries of Durham (UMD). The Foursquare initiative highlighted unlikely locations: abandoned warehouses, a tent in the woods and vacant storefronts among others; to build awareness of homelessness in Durham.

What is your perception of geolocation applications? How can you find the most beneficial platform for your needs and audiences? How can you take advantage of what motivates people to check-in without devaluing the brand?