Toward a local syzygy: aligning deals, check-ins and places

Check-ins are only the beginning. Here's what lies ahead for local.

Three significant trends in the local sector — deals, check-ins, and place pages — are on a bender and headed for an exciting convergence. When they meet we will see one of three things: a train wreck of incompatibility, an awkward confluence, or a very powerful alignment. I’m hoping for the latter, a sort of local syzygy, because a well-conceived orchestration of these trends will benefit the consumer and it has real potential to take us entirely out of the Yellow Pages era and into exciting, unexplored territory.

This is a two-part post: here I look in more detail at check-ins, deals, and place products (including, briefly, the adventurously named Facebook Places) with an eye to what might follow. In a following post I will discuss how we may more actively ease their convergence with linked data and some basic adherence to extant standards, specifically how these efforts will affect the local consumer.

Place pages and check-ins

The check-in is hardly the apogee of the local consumer experience but it works, and this is what is most important about any product. However successful it is now, the check-in will remain an interim solution for identifying long-term customer/business affinities and physical point of presence. So what’s next?

I’ve written about check-ins previously: since then, Facebook has thrown its hat into the ring with their own place/check-in product, offering little feature distinction outside the problematic ability to check-in your friends on their behalf . Thanks to Facebook, the “Ferris Bueller Problem” — in which a friend checks you into (say) the Von Steuben Day Parade when you are officially at home, ill — may soon find its way into mainstream parlance. Expect a rise in just-for-larks in absentia check-ins to the local “gentlemen’s club” and similar places of sophomoric amusement.

More interestingly, casual requests for a similar product from LinkedIn, and the introduction of a third-party check-in offering for Twitter demonstrate that geo and social products are becoming more integrated in the mind of the consumer, and corporate product strategies: Greg Sterling remarked on this trend recently in’s new eat, play, live marketing campaign which attempts to transform the brand from its staid origins into “a lifestyle guide that also happens to feature contractors and plumbers.” He is spot-on: some lines of business will not fit within the check-in model, but they nonetheless must be accommodated in any successful business-to-consumer product.

I have no desire to see another check-in clone arrive anytime soon. Jeff Holden, the founder of Whrrl, recently noted that the check-in will shortly be a commodity, and Foursquare’s Dennis Crowley believes it already is. If you are an entrepreneur or developer thinking of building a new check-in service, please don’t. Instead, consider some of the more exciting challenges that provide real consumer benefit:

  • Divorce the business from user authentication and social network: Social/local apps are entirely insular: you must be a Foursquare user using a Foursquare app (or the Foursquare API) to check into a Foursquare venue. I can see why this is, but it need not be. For example, consider an alternative platform where users supply instead an authenticated OpenID and an hcard. Authenticated user-to-venue relationships could be exposed across multiple social networks under the user’s control, and the access control list could even accommodate attribute criteria such as place type or business category. This is not simple aggregation or shimming, but a lower-level, cross-platform integration.
  • Auto check-in: Manual check-ins are so 2009. Instead, think toward the endpoint where a geo-commercial footprint will be created automatically as an artifact of our day-to-day activities, should we wish it. The first steps in this direction will be toward improving the consumer’s retail experience. Shopkick is effectively an auto check-in service. Other efforts toward this end will include credit-card geo traces, perhaps combined with a “local favorites” list used to prescribe which businesses may be checked into automatically. There are critical privacy implications here, so this footprint must be controlled by users, and employed by small and medium businesses (SMBs) to engage their customers on their own terms — offering deals and events rather than advertising. As sharing your location with others becomes more codified, it will place demands on forthcoming products and start-ups that expose this under very granular, controlled conditions. This includes timestamps, geofences, disparate social networks, and leveraged venue classification.
  • Micro beacons: Expect over the next two years a bloom of micro-positioning products: sensor-and-platform combinations that assist with indoor navigation (malls), determining when a user is genuinely “in store,” and guiding the consumer directly to a product on-shelf. Shopkick’s iPhone product uses the device’s microphone (simple, clever) to do this, but “Bluetooth beaconing” and QR codes are other low-energy, low-hassle options. We shall see both passive and active implementations to assist with the auto check-in and location disambiguation, depending on the particular use case.

Advances along these tracks should obviate the check-in as we know it today. This is a good thing — check-ins are something to get over, an intermediate solution to tolerate until we have something that works better. Foursquare certainly knows this. The excitement — for Foursquare’s business and users — lies wholly in their ability to deliver utility, novelty, and serendipity beyond the check-in.

Get it here: the deal

Groupon’s $134 million series C funding in April and its estimated $1.34 billion valuation woke investors and entrepreneurs to the monetary value of group buying, and local deals more generally. There are now hundreds of variants and multiple aggregators, while “Groupon clone scripts” can be purchased (caveat emptor) from any number of freelance developer sites.

Groupon and its ilk tend to get bundled under the “group buying” or less-apt “social couponing” monikers, but — in regards to Groupon certainly — there’s little that’s actively social about the products. The less charitable may argue that Groupon’s success is due as much to the severity of discounts on offer. However, Groupon and others have raised awareness that advertising is no longer the only solution. Specifically, SMBs are slowly gaining access to tools to engage their customers on mutually favorable terms. Examples:

  • Just-in-time delivery: Businesses increasingly have the ability to deliver discounts, incentives, and upsells to consumers in a highly relevant, just-in-time manner. Think of services that provide attractive discounts when tables are open at a restaurant, when spare inventory is available, or the business simply requires immediate revenue to help with cashflow. These new approaches secure short-term, incremental revenue for the business and offer great value to the user. Win-win.
  • Topical content: Most of these products now deliver deals based on city and zip code with little accommodation for either personal preferences or current location. Expect “relevance” to become the new watchword in deal and coupon delivery. Relevance will be obtained via platforms that exploit an accessible selection of local business favorites: Facebook is in a position to deliver, as is Hunch local, or my former shop, LikeList.
  • Coupon organizers: Digital deals are big, and will become only more common as delivery channels are improved. Jim Moran, co-founder of daily deal aggregator Yipit, records more than 100 companies offering deals in the U.S. alone, most recently Yelp. With these numbers, digital deals threaten to become as unmanageable as their hardcopy equivalents. In the same way that local favorites will assist in filtering the signal from the noise in the forthcoming local clamor, I would expect that intelligent, digital coupon wallets will be employed to remind or introduce users to deals that are relevant to their immediate location and circumstance. One coupon vendor called Savings Sidekick (apparently not related to the Shopkick iphone app) is doing something similar by using the tip feature in Foursquare to remind users of nearby deals from their coupon books. This particular implementation is as interesting as it could be annoying.

Part 1 wrap

Local is huge and only getting bigger. As a litmus, Borrell’s recent ad forecast notes that “local online advertising should grow by almost 18% […] to $16.1 billion, in 2011.” Money follows money: we can expect further me-too products around deals, check-ins, and place products, but there is huge scope for investment into products that contribute genuine value to the consumer experience and enhance SMBs’ ability to connect to their customers.

Much of this will take place at the data and platform levels. In my next post I’ll take a look at how linked data might help cross-platform integration, and join deals, check-ins and place pages to the benefit of the consumer.


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