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Location-Based Social Networking. Is it the Next Big Thing?

Connecting people – more than ever before, because now there’s a way to locate you and broadcast your location to everybody else. Cool, creepy or somewhere in between, I was a little shocked at first but it’s not as weird as it sounds. The more you find out about the advantages and the reasons why your location might interest somebody else (other than to psycho stalk you), the more you will come to understand why this is the next big thing for business.

To be honest, when I started my research I knew little more than the word, ‘Foursquare’, but that’s where – thank you again Google, I started my search. Here are my initial questions and the answers I came up with.

So what exactly is it?
According to this site, which sums it up like a book for Dummies, ‘Location-based social networks are those that use GPS features to locate you and that let you broadcast your location and other content from your mobile device.’ It’s a play of the ‘3 R’s’: reaching the right person, in the right place and at the right time.

Pretty straightforward, but what’s the point?
Location-based social networking is like your ‘girlfriend’ who tells you what stores are on sale as you walk into Dubai Mall or your mate telling you about the great fries at that new burger joint.

As is the case of any social media channel, the most important thing is to engage. Adding location data to social networks is not the end goal, but a means towards enhancing the experience of the location even more.

From individuals to businesses to bloggers, location-based social networking has a lot to offer. Whether giving you the opportunity to locate and connect with friends and colleagues in the area, or earn free stuff, these networks are helping companies gain free brand exposure. Each time somebody checks in at a restaurant for example, that restaurant is being mentioned and other users are more likely to remember that name the next time they’re hungry. And that’s great for the user too, next time somebody asks, ‘Where do you want to eat?’

How does it work?
Quite literally, it is what it is – location based. Instead of simply recording our messages, these new networks record our location. How does that happen? Think of it as sneaking out with your dad’s credit card, and treating your friends to that swanky 5-star coffee shop. The happy bubble bursts as you come how to a barrage of questions from daddy (especially why would you spend $100 on coffee, across town and 10 minutes past curfew?) How the heck did he know?

You didn’t realise that your dad had an alert setup to notify him when the credit card was used. These networks find users the same way by following their ‘check-ins’ (or the card swipe) that happens when you send a message to the social network, along with sharing the location you’re in at the moment.

How is it evolving?
There are experts who feel that the whole concept of having to check in is taking away from the user’s experience. This has prompted companies to rethink their strategy and use location as an enhancement tool, rather than the purpose. And that comes from understanding why people are prompted to take out their phone in the first place. Companies need to put ‘Why?’ at the forefront of their user experience. You take your phone out to take a picture because you want to capture a moment and be able to share it with your friends. The fact that you can geo-tag that photo should be an afterthought.

Most location-based services have already figured out that simply checking-in is not enough to keep users engaged. Competing networks are at war, adding newer and more rewarding features in order to remain competitive and interesting. So while Foursquare relies on the gaming aspect of checking-in to venues, thereby rewarding ‘mayors’ who check in the most, Gowalla is taking a different path by offering similar rewards to anyone who checks in to specific venues.

And when McDonald’s – despite being the single most advertised brand name in the world, decided to geo-tag, they decided to ‘Pick n Play’ to get people to stop in their tracks and play along. The result, as you will see in this video, was quite impressive.

So who qualifies?
Definitely not the navy officer on-board a ship to Antarctica for a 9-month isolated mission, but anyone else I would say. The ideal target audience would be mobile users who are out there going everywhere and anywhere, from malls, cafes, safaris to dinners.

Are we there yet?
For what started as mandate passed by the US government in 1996 to allow mobile-network operators to identify an emergency caller’s location, the phenomenon has captured the attention of techies, social media users, small-time businesses and CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies. Location-based marketing users, today, might be young but they are mighty, with the ‘ancient’ people starting to catch on. With big players launching their own version, like Facebook with Facebook Places, even my mom will one day be hip to the changes that are going mainstream. Even Obama has joined foursquare. If even he’s telling you where he is, then that means you should too!

Too much of personal information out there and the undeniable invasion of privacy are always regarded as the main drawbacks of social networking. Though far-fetched, somebody using a location based social network could track somebody down for their own sinister plot if they wanted to. So granted, while we are delving deeper into personal space and sometimes location-based marketing can seem a bit creepy; the control – as with all social media, comes down to how much you voluntarily share.

So to share or not to share – your location? If so, have you started using it for business or pleasure?