Applications for LBS have been around for years, though the market for mobile LBS is recently gaining momentum. For example, Foursquare, the largest LBS company, attracted 21 million of its 25 million worldwide users in the past two years (“About,” 2012; Van Grove, 2012). Foursquare offers users a database of businesses in a given area, so they can “check in” to the business or restaurant they are visiting. Check-ins allow Foursquare users to crowd source tips or insights on specific businesses from other users, and track the places their friends visit. A similar service is Yelp which brings the Yelp! community of user reviewers mobile, syncing photos, tips and check ins with the main online website. Google has also joined the fray, overlaying Zagat business reviews into Google Maps for a now well-know mobile service called “local guides” within Google Maps.
The LBS market is growing as mobile phone users become more comfortable adding location services into their daily routine. However, it is still an evolving market, flowing with demand and innovation. In 2010, Mashable declared startup business Neer as the most practical of the top five location-based services, a leader for its simplicity. Today, the business is defunct.
Considering the volatility of evolving consumer technology, public relations professionals representing LBS companies must keep several unique characteristics in mind. The greatest PR asset within the industry is access to specific audiences and key behavior information. Users provide basic information such as age, city, gender upon sign-up. They then begin using the location-based functions to specify shopping, dining or entertainment preferences. After regular use, all this LBS data coalesce to provide PR and marketing teams with a cohesive profile of its users. Likewise, the connections between users provide another layer of insight to psychographics and attitudes. This convergence of social networks and LBS does two things for communication professionals in the industry: opportunity to use user data to form partnerships with local businesses and potential for personalized, two way, even realtime, interaction with customers.
Partnerships increase the clout of LBS companies, giving them a “real world” presence and linking an online influence to an enhanced offline experience for users. Foursquare has partnered with American Express to provide discounts to Foursquare users at local businesses, and modernizing the AMEX image for younger demographics. This has also benefited local business in both online and offline contexts, bolstering direct sales and boosting online reputation.
Greater personalization depends on regular data from users and responsibility from the LBS company. PR representatives must be prepared to handle concerns about privacy and how LBS companies are securing the data they collect. There are legal issues with data collection from users under age 13; PR representatives must be familiar with these statutes and how to address them to users or the media. One LBS company, Skout, had to shut down it’s teen community after it service was implicated in several rape charges.
Broadcasting one’s location to the world strikes many people as unsettling. Facebook Places, the mobile LBS application for Facebook, failed to rival Foursquare’s explosion of growth because it was perceived to encourage stalking and unwanted behavior tracking. It is of extreme importance that companies are promoting policies to protect users and that PR professionals convey this fact clearly and openly. Perception may trump technical superiority if the public doesn’t feel it can trust an LBS company.
One company that has found unique success in the LBS market despite these challenges is Grindr. Grindr is a social networking service for gay men. Tuning into the dating scene has been tricky for other LBS companies, in large part due to women’s unwillingness to broadcast their location, fearing they will appear too vulnerable. So far, gay men do not have the same concerns, embracing the capability to broadcast and receive these personal details. Although the company bills itself as the “largest and most popular all-male location-based social network” it’s four million users pales in comparison to mainstream, general interest networks like Foursquare.
Still, four million users is significant in the dating LBS scene, especially one focused on a very specific demographic. Grindr’s success lead to the creation of an application for lesbians (Qrushr), and one for straight users (Blendr) to respond to community demand. However, neither Qrushr nor Blendr have had the widespread adoption of Grindr yet. Part of the allure of Grindr was its acute identification with its user base – it met a need that no other business was addressing. Grindr CEO, Joel Simkhai, is openly gay, and created the company to facilitate how gay, curious and bisexual men connect and socialize. Though much of Grindr’s users found the application through word of mouth, savvy PR has also played a part in bringing this company into the attention of mainstream public. For example, Grindr is struggling secure adoption by women, even on Qrushr and Blendr, so the PR team is altering its messaging. Grindr can be an application for straight women to find gay friends who share their interests or may be in the same mall shopping.
But for Grindr, the core of business is the gay community. Simkhai feels a responsibility to use Grindr as a platform for awareness as well as socializing. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Grindr became a platform of social change through the campaign, “Grindr for Equality.” “We must elect not only a president but representatives and senators who are supportive of our community and our equality,” said Simkhai. He knew that all users of Grindr were of legal voting age because of the requirements of the application. Using other user-specific information, Grindr delivered hundred of tailored messages to encourage users to politically support gay rights. For example, users in Minnesota were alerted to Amendment 1, the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, and encouraged to contact their local representatives.
Successful mobile LBS applications offer companies – and their PR representatives – direct access to a community that can be mobilized to promote a cause or ideal. Grindr is just scratching the surface, but it is possible this tight-knit group of four million was instrumental in voting down Minnesota’s Amendment 1, as well as legalizing gay marriage in Maine, Maryland and Washington. Grindr can capitalize upon these milestones to increase political mobilization, inspiring gay rights activism within the other 191 countries of its users.
Once people embrace a platform in the LBS space, invaluable business and PR outreach opportunities emerge. The future of LBS is engagement, as is the future of new media overall. In LBS, the privacy and adoption stakes are higher but the impact will be more focused, and potentially, more lasting.
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