Wednesday, October 13, 2010

(Not So) Annoying Places

Aug 31, 2010
- Benjamin Palmer

I dragged half a dozen people to a new panini place after a meeting the other day because it had a Foursquare check-in offer: buy-one-get-one-free when you check-in with a friend. Awesome deal.

Earlier that day, I'd been at a meeting uptown and had left via 47th Street, New York's diamond district. There are about 100 diamond merchants on that one block and you can't walk more than five feet without being offered diamonds at absolutely the lowest price ever offered. When you say, "No," you almost feel like it's your fault -- why would you dare walk down that street if you're not going to buy some diamonds?

I couldn't help but think that in a few years smartphones will make every street feel like the diamond district, with each shop blinking and tweeting at you with the latest deal. It reminds me -- and maybe not in a good way -- of the scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise is inundated with hyper-customized advertising.

In the marketing industry, we often talk about new platforms like Foursquare in terms of monetization through marketing, but it got me thinking about what the user experience might ultimately be like. What if it's totally terrible? If we fast-forward a few years, will it be like that scene in the movie, or the diamond district, with merchants endlessly hawking their wares at us everywhere we go?  When we as marketers can tell where our customers are at all times, are we going to make their life hell? Or will it be awesome?

The Web version of this is happening already. Google and Amazon collect my online browsing habits and serve back customized ads and content. Ad-serving technology can pinpoint your demo and psychographics with alarming accuracy. The idea is that in the physical world eventually your past and present locations could be tracked and collated in a similar way, and information is served back to you at just the right time. 

When the platforms graduate from helping you find your drinking buddies at the local bar to integration with a wider range of purchases -- helping you shop for groceries, or find what you're looking for within a big aisle at Walmart or Ikea -- that's when the big spending brands will join in, right?

Targeting based on location is not yet super useful, but not because mobile technology isn't ready. A friend of mine excitedly tried to use an Adidas coupon he got from a Foursquare check-in, but discovered he couldn't just walk in and show his iPhone screen to a cashier at the store. Instead, he was met with a suspicious stare. The marketing department had run the campaign, but it hadn't been integrated into any POS system; there was no way to give the discount. He called to complain and later came back to find they had taped a barcode marked "Foursquare SKU" to the register -- a pretty analog solution.

Some new types of brand experiences are working better. The History Channel is doing a cool mobile campaign that I've experienced firsthand. People leave "tips" on Foursquare about the historical relevance of locations near your recent check-ins.

It's all piecemeal now, but it won't stay that way for long. So many brands are on Facebook now that its recent introduction of Places might make you think this is the big moment when every brand can easily get into the location game. I wonder, if that happens, does it mean we are living the dystopian future of the movies, or is this going to make things a lot more pleasant for the users?

The answer might be in the tipping point of something as large an audience as Facebook. If you were on Facebook in the early days, it was a lot more like a fun online hangout than a database of everyone you've ever met. Now, it's far less fun and way less private, but as soon as "everyone" got on Facebook, it created interesting new possibilities and platforms and made Facebook Connect incredibly useful for brands and developers alike.

What if instead of creating a cacophony of digital brands shouting at you as you walked down the street, our mobile future makes it easier and more fun to shop? If every product and store were being broadcast to you simultaneously, would it become the inverse of our current search-based digital shopping? Instead of knowing ahead of time that you're going to go buy the new thing on sale at a specific store and, with sniper accuracy, you zoom in and out, could mobile technology actually restore the ambling, browsing experience from before the Web, when you could wander through the mall or the record store mentally filtering your environment to find the perfect thing? Instead of having to go in and out of every establishment, you could look at your magical device and what's on sale around you would be pushed to you to filter, explore and, possibly, buy, with all the serendipity intact.

Benjamin Palmer is co-founder and CEO of The Barbarian Group. He can be reached at