Why is location changing the business of social networking? Because it is the missing link between virtual societies and the real world. Once I can identify the location of each member of my community, I can easily find ways to make money from it.

The value of Location

Location will open the door to a new level of hyper-targeting. Not only can I target customers who answer to a certain demographic profile, but I can do it based on their location, and I can predict their behavior based on past locations. I can be confident in sending an invitation to a football fan who is close to a sports bar, because I know he likes sports, there is a game and he is not at the stadium. I’ll also extend that invitation to the usual friends he meets on game days. Everyone wins — My users enjoy the opportunity to meet in a place and receive a discount; my customer (the bar) will pay me for having my users coming to their establishment.
Location can make money, but it also costs money. Companies that collect location information will need to figure out how to access, collect and provision location data, as well as put systems in place that secure users’ location and identity and provide them with a clear understanding on how their location is used.

But, who is the customer?

For the last two years I’ve been following the rise, shine and in some cases the fall of many location-based social networks (LBSNs). Last year, at the Metaplaces conference, I had the opportunity to speak to an important panel featuring people from leading companies in the LBSN market. I asked them “Is location a feature or you can build a full concept around it? What is the difference between your social network and Facebook plus location?” The general answer I received was that location is an enabler, and that it should be used to provide some compelling value to the customer.
When I build a business model around an intangible technological concept such as a LBSN, my first question is: Who is your USER and who is your CUSTOMER? Usually they are not the same person. A user is a person who will engage your company service because they receive some value back. This value can be manifested in different ways: fun, information, socialization, discovery, access to content, augmented reality, etc. Bottom line, the user is looking for an enhanced experience. A customer is a person who provides you with income.
Sometimes the user and the customer are the same person, and “subscription fees” are the usual business model. That is the case of many family and friend finders sold by mobile operators. There are also “freemium” services, where users can access a subset of features for free but they need to pay for full site functionality. This is common in dating sites.
But models where users become customers are seldom found. Mainstream social networks are providing full site functionality for free and therefore their users are NOT their customers. In this case, the business model is different because we need to find a compelling value for users to continue to utilize your services and find customers who will pay for it. But what is it they will pay for?

“…At this point the users should be called by their real function — “data collectors” or “content generators.” The real value of the social network resides in the data users can generate and in the ability of the company to monetize it, and in the case of LBSN, the idea is to monetize the user’s current location…”

Human Mobile Probes

When LBSNs enable a platform for people to interact for free, they need to find out who is going to pay the bills. There are companies betting on location-based advertising models. There are many question raised here:

  • Who has access to and control of the location information?
  • Who is servicing the ads?
  • Who has the relationship with the advertisers?
  • Do I need to give the user the capability to opt-out?

At this point the users should be called by their real function — “data collectors” or “content generators.” The real value of the social network resides in the data users can generate and in the ability of the company to monetize it, and in the case of LBSN, the idea is to monetize the user’s current location.
Recently I read that Facebook will allow users to share their current location. Reading Facebook privacy policy you can see that “…When you share your location with others or add a location to something you post, we treat that like any other content you post (for example, it is subject to your privacy settings). If we offer a service that supports this type of location sharing we will present you with an opt-in choice of whether you want to participate…” Nice! But keep reading “…When you access Facebook from a computer, mobile phone… we may collect information from that device about your… location”
At the user level, you will be able to decide if you want to share your location with other users, but what is implied here is that in any case Facebook will collect your location, along with other information. Why?! To make money, of course!

Probe data for sale

Who wants to buy probe data? Every single company that understands the power of location should. You need to get used to thinking location = business = money. Let’s take Twitter+location as an example. Comcast provides customer care through its Twitter account “comcastcares”. If now I can map where complaints are coming from, I can easily visualize where the company should invest in improving its infrastructure (and their image). Extrapolate this same concept to an artist pushing a new record, a political campaign, a company measuring its advertising effectiveness by mapping its buzz according to local advertising efforts, or a PR company looking at real time mood maps and analyzing trends in specific areas. The accessibility of dynamic location information creates an invaluable tool in real time business intelligence. Can you see the monetary value for companies like Ogilvy, Arbitron, and Nielsen if they can measure in real time the effects of events? If they can give their customers the capability to make informed decisions on where to invest their PR efforts, and later measure their effectiveness?

“…when we introduce location into the social networking business, we may prove wrong the idea that friends and money don’t mix…”

Beyond the Blinders

Horses are just like people — they tend to travel in the direction they are looking. Blinders keep horses looking straight ahead, instead of looking around at their surroundings. Like horses with blinders, many companies run in the same direction of the big ones, missing a lot of opportunities outside of their vision.
In their book “Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom” Matthew Fraser and Soumitra Dutta identify three forms of interaction: personal, organizational and consumer/civic. Social networks are not only about friends, they are also about colleagues, coworkers, members of a political party and others. Many social networks are looking at the power of harnessing personal location and try to fight each other in a very crowded place – the friend space. Think about the possibilities in terms of business intelligence when introducing the concept of location to task forces and large organizations; then make an additional step forward and think in terms of the influence that location can have in other social/civic associations.

A long time ago I coined the saying, “Location-based service is the art of transforming location into money.” In business, money is not everything. It is the only thing. And when we introduce location into the social networking business, we may prove wrong the idea that friends and money don’t mix.

NOTE: This article was originally published at www.thewherebusiness.com