Making location based services mainstream

Location-based services, as exemplified by Foursquare and Facebook Places, are overlooking some basic principles built on consumer needs, argues Felix Morgan, senior creative technologist at Billington Cartmell

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This is the last Digital Focus bulletin of the year. We wish you all a marvellous Christmas break and we will be popping back into your in-box on 14 January 2011.

Every market analyst in the industry has got high hopes for location based services (LBS) in the coming few years, and the competition is becoming fiercer every day. From market leaders Foursquare and Facebook Places to more innovative start-ups such as SCVNGR and Flook, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will emerge victorious.

You could argue that the reason no-one has come up trumps so far is because of the infancy of the market, but there are four basic principles built on consumer needs that LBS companies are overlooking which would help propel them into the mainstream.

1. Make it social

It’s naturally ingrained into mankind to crave connection, and social media has facilitated this. Location based services need to tap into this primal need to socialise if they are to be taken seriously.

If I check into a restaurant, why can my friends not ask how it is? Why can we not engage in a dialogue about the atmosphere and quality of food? Why do they not take advantage of the phonebook’s in-built directory? A mobile phone is an incredibly personal device, and current services aren’t tapping into the resources at hand.

2. Make it worthwhile

In order to become valuable to early adopters and the mainstream alike, LBS providers need to move past gimmicks and offer substantial rewards. Just as they need connection with others, humans have an innate desire to progress and develop.

Certain LBS have begun to realise this, but none have capitalised on it effectively. Foursquare offers Mayorships and badges, for example, but neither of these offer any form of progression or real incentive. The current user levels on Foursquare are binary (you’re either a Mayor or you’re not), when in reality they should offer multiple levels based on varying degrees of engagement, in order to appeal to a wider audience. Rather than rewarding the power-users exclusively, LBS need to offer small, achievable steps with worthwhile rewards.

3. Make it easy

Lots of tech start-ups fall flat because of their focus on the technology rather than the user experience. It’s all well and good to offer an innovative new service, but if it isn’t intuitive and easy to use, it will never get past the early adopters.

A great example of a company using this philosophy is Twitter. It has managed to achieve phenomenal success by taking the concept of blogging, which is time-consuming and quite technical, and boil it down to its simplest form, thus creating micro-blogging. This same logic needs to be applied to LBS, and the logical conclusion is passive check-ins. LBS need to be less disruptive and more complementary, allowing people to share their location without detracting from the experience.

4. Make it relevant

Data is playing an increasingly important role in the social web, and it is becoming more and more important to cater services on an individual basis. While I may be interested in finding the latest graphics design gallery, this may not be true for the guy next to me on the bus, and the information directed to each of us needs to reflect that.

Once LBS capitalise on this fully, it will open lots of doors for advertisers, allowing brands to target the most relevant audiences to create a much more engaging experience.

Ultimately, LBS providers need to ensure they build a consumer-focused experience on top of the technology. While certain services have perfected aspects of it, until one service is social, worthwhile, easy and relevant, LBS will struggle to achieve longevity in the market.

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Tom Fishburne is founder of Marketoon Studios. Follow his work at marketoonist.com or on Twitter @tomfishburne See more of the Marketoonist here

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