A wave of excitement met the media world last week as Facebook’s new location service Facebook Places rolled out to the UK, having launched in the US several weeks ago.
So what does this mean for digital marketers? You could argue that it doesn’t actually mean much – the basic functionality of "checking-in" to real world locations online and sharing this information with your friends isn’t exactly new… my Twitter stream has been polluted with updates from FourSquare (and to a much lesser extent, Gowalla) for months.
What Facebook does is bring this slight annoyance to the masses - I no longer have to restrict my desire to publish my every move to those that are digitally savvy enough to understand FourSquare – I can unleash it on everyone who uses Facebook. Which amounts to basically everyone.
If I’ve taken a somewhat cynical view here then it is perhaps more as a user than a marketer. Facebook has once again taken the liberty of opting in every single one of its users to the new service without getting any consent.
In fact, by default you can be checked-in to locations by your friends without any consent and this is probably the first way many users will experience Places.
Many of the tech blogs were up in arms about this following the US launch but actually it’s probably a masterstroke on Facebook’s part – what better way to get a service critical mass than by making it so people are using it without even realising it. I initially turned it off, but after seeing a few group check-ins re-enabled it I’d started feeling left out.
It is a controversial step that seems bound to lead to mass-adoption. Once your friend has checked you in a few times you are much less likely to think twice about it before checking yourself in, along with your friends, next time you end up in a relevant location.
But if the initial experience of Places feels a little jarring – particularly when so many people seem to be using it to check-in at work and at home (which has long been the most annoying behaviour imaginable on FourSquare) – it is probably down to the uncertainties, from a user’s point of view, on how it should be used.
For marketers and advertisers it’s another huge opportunity – it isn’t an option yet but you can be fairly sure that targeting users who have checked into certain geographic areas or certain types of establishment will soon be an option. And when you get to the stage that you can offer the ability to target people who drink a lot of coffee on Brick Lane (guilty as charged), for example, the appeal extends way beyond the largest advertisers to pretty much everybody who ever tries to sell anything.
Combine that with an advertising interface whose only competitor in terms of lowest barriers to entry is Google and you suddenly have a winning formula.
Of course fans of FourSquare and Gowalla will point to the lack of "meta-game" in Facebook Places. At present there is no ability to be awarded Mayor-status for your local off-licence based on the amount of time you spend there – the craving for ever more badges being a key driver of usage for these existing services.
And this is an element that has been used well by advertisers, who have given exclusive discounts to their most loyal customers through the tool (Starbucks) or run voucher competitions for everyone who checks-in on a given day (McDonalds).
This latter, so far lacking, component is still a huge opportunity for Facebook Places and it will no doubt come – and it would be little surprise to see badges turn up at some point too. But it’s important to note that Facebook Places will succeed regardless without either of these things – updating Facebook has become so normal that for many of its users to not update your status feels like a more active stance than the passive action of continuing to use the site. Remembering to check-in just becomes one more part of the ritual.
Less clear is what this all means for existing location services Gowalla and FourSquare – both will let you post your check-in with their service to Facebook but this leaves them in danger of letting Facebook become the bigger check-in service.
Why bother using FourSquare if ultimately everyone who checks in there ends up on Facebook anyway?
Adam Russell, media account director, LBi.