The Next Stop for Location Services

Just when you’re getting used to Foursquare and Gowalla and Yelp and Facebook Places, there are new apps to check out. Since checking-in has gone mainstream, there are a few notable new experiences that are worth a look (In addition to those listed earlier on

Instagram, Path and not-as-new Foodspotting are more photo- and activity-oriented social smartphone apps that are centered on what you do once you have checked in somewhere. Instagram is what you’d get if you built the Facebook wall (or Tumblr) into a digital camera—it’s all about taking pictures and sharing them with your friends, but in a more location- and event-focused way. Path is more like a private network—you can invite “up to 50 of your closest friends” and share your geotagged photo stream with them. Foodspotting is a bit more mature. There’s a sophisticated Web community and an app that is about sharing pictures of food (and your experiences thereof).

This is all interesting because it’s a more focused user experience based around what has become the mainstream of social networking: sharing where you are and what you’re doing. If you’ve been at this for any length of time, I’ll wager you are personally and professionally going through some Facebook fatigue. Managing the never-ending stream of everyone talking about everything can be a little exhausting, and it can certainly be hard to create a meaningful brand experience within the everything-on-all-the-time environment of social media.

If we are thinking about what our clients should be doing in the social space, maybe it is not always about determining how to fit a brand’s values into the everything-for-everyone style of Facebook. These other applications seem like they are new, more manageable opportunities for brands. Being centered on a more specific experience is a better way for a brand to jump into the endless stream of what everyone is doing all the time (which is kind of impossible to get your head around a lot of the time).

So the cool thing about these new, more focused apps is that there’s a bit more of a purpose to rally around. What does that mean for a brand? Looking at Instagram, it’s not difficult to imagine an app for Nike where sneakerheads share pictures of shoes, or a branded app for sharing street art, or music, or any number of things that are related to a brand.

I’m not saying brands need to rush out and build their own proprietary apps per se, but social networking has got so big and is working so well that it’s starting to fragment. And these fragments start to look a lot friendlier to brands and their unique points of view.

Taking things even further, though, I think there’s an interesting lesson around what content is and what media is. Foursquare set off a cascade of location-based media, but I think we all got so caught up in the world of check-ins that we failed to see the larger and more important medium was actually about presence. What I mean is that Foursquare was (and is) actually about what you’re doing right now. The check-in was just content to wrap that experience up, not so different than a tweet or now a picture on Instagram.

That’s important to recognize because it gives us a bit of a head start in thinking of different ways for brands to interact in the system. Instead of just location-based rewards that have become popular on Foursquare, brands could think about how to broadcast their own presence and make that interesting enough for others to follow.

Benjamin Palmer is co-founder and CEO of The Barbarian Group.

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