ADOTAS – Though billed as a battle royale — with participants passing a boxing glove back and forth — little blood was spilled at the Mobile Battle on Friday, a discussion about the current state and future of location-based mobile social networks hosted by agency Ogilvy and paneled by representatives from Foursquare, Buzzd, BrightKite, Loopt and relative newcomer DoubleDutch.
The atmosphere was actually very genial, with many of the speakers complimenting their peers (or competitors?) on successful campaigns. Perhaps because the space is still in its infancy, the players haven’t felt the urge to turn on each other or carve out territory with a butcher’s knife.
The discussion took on a tad more urgency as news broke the day before that Facebook will be launching location-based status updates and has partnered with McDonald’s to enable advertising when users check in at franchises. However, the panelists proved hospitable, giving at least a lukewarm welcome to the invading social giant.
Facebook’s entry into the space would be a boon to all players as the network’s massive scale would bring location-based networks to the mass market, said Naveen Selvadurai, cofounder of Foursquare, which was rumored to have caught Facebook’s eye as an acquisition target a short time ago. But the ‘book’s size could also be an obstacle as privacy concerns erupt.
“The bigger networks have a long way to go before they realize the privacy implications,” he warned.
The friendship models of online social networks are going to be a barrier to location share, added BrightKite cofounder Rob Lawson. Many users will not care to divulge their location updates to everyone and navigating Facebook’s labyrinthine privacy settings will not prove worth their effort.
“There’s a cultural difference between networks that will have to change or the location space will stay fragmented,” he said.
“I hope Facebook treads carefully,” said Lawrence Coburn, CEO of DoubleDutch, a private-label solution allowing brands to create their own mobile networks. The consequences of sloppy execution could have ramification across the entire space.
Moderator Maria Mandel, senior partner and executive diretor of Ogilvy Digital Labs, was surprised that the room was nearly packed, especially on a sunny Friday afternoon, but the statistics outlined in her expository speech — 600 million global location-based mobile social network users and 55 million in the U.S. alone within the next three years — seemed to explain the intense interest.
Foursquare tends to get a lion’s share of the media’s attention, especially after massive user growth and some awe-inspiring stats such as 347,000 check-ins in one day during the South by Southwest Interactive festival in March. In the past five weeks, Foursquare has almost doubled its total amount of check-ins, from 22 million to 40 million.
However, Buzzd, Loopt and BrightKite have all managed to build impressive niches and earn the interest of forward-thinking advertisers. Releasing an enhanced iPhone app in the next few weeks, Buzzd is a location-based social city guide that encourages users to write and share reviews of various establishments. The originator of “checking in,” Loopt currently boasts 3 million members. BrightKite has implemented augmented reality in campaigns for companies such as Best Buy.
Notably absent from Friday’s panel, though, was Foursquare’s chief rival, Gowalla, which actually beat out Foursquare for best mobile site at the 2010 SXSW Web Awards.
The subject of check-in fatigue surfaced early in the debate, with Nihal Mehta — CEO and cofounder of Buzzd and former founder of Ipsh!, possibly the first mobile advertising agency and service — noting that The Wall Street Journal’s Kara Swisher has been among a vocal crew saying they’re sick of the constant location updates.
A possible antidote, Mehta suggested, was a passive check-in system. A phone already knows where a user is and should be able to discern what activity he or she is participating in. He pondered whether the network could query you about reviewing a movie you’ve just watched or commenting on the restaurant where you just enjoyed dinner.
Loopt Vice President of Global Business Development Brian Marciniak said his network offers both active and passive check-in services, but many users had privacy concerns surrounding persistent location updates. Checking in has not yet become a natural consumer mindset, he said.
This was a neat segue into location-based privacy issues, something that earned a lot of attention earlier this year with the launch of “Please Rob Me,” a website that aggregated Foursquare and Twitter data to highlight how oversharing could get you burglarized. During the Ogilvy event someone even tweeted, “I’m at #mobilebattle. Rob my home,” which appeared on a screen-projected Twitter broadcast (brought to us by Aerva) and gave the entire audience a healthy laugh.
While ultimately it’s the user’s responsibility not to overshare — the point the website “Please Rob Me” was trying to make — Lawson said that BrightKite is taking initiative by guiding new users through the process of discerning who to share which information with. The power to share is in real time, he noted, and it’s important that users understand the consequences.
On the advertising and marketing front, Lawson noted that a great deal of campaign innovation came from brands and not their agencies. Working in tandem with brands, BrightKite found it was pushing the envelope on what could be done with its network. Alas, the company BrightKite doesn’t have the resources to deal with more brands directly.
Mehta commented that working with location-based mobile social networks was much more alluring than awful mobile banners — for both advertisers and consumers. Brands are finding better response through sponsorship and takeover opportunities, he said, citing Foursquare’s recent Pepsi “leaderboard” campaign.
“Because there are so many social networks here, there’s a great deal of fragmentation; with fragmentation there’s a great opportunity for aggregation,” Mehta said. “We bet that value proposition will become more compelling as more brands enter the space.”
Loopt has found incentives and rewards to are fantastic for drawing in engagement, BrightKite’s Lawson argued that not everyone wants to give discounts and freebies with their advertising. In particular, local advertisers don’t have the resources of national brands, and the space that location-based mobile networks has the potential to revolutionize is mobile advertising for these local businesses.
The long-term value of these networks, Lawson concluded is face-time; they offer opportunity to make social lives richer and more rewarding, blurring the line between online and offline.
“We all have busy lives, we’re all connected to each other in many digital ways, but we all like getting a drink, having a meal, getting a cup of coffee, going to the park,” he said. Location-based mobile social networks are “pushing people together in the real world. We’re trying to figure out how to use location in a social mobile context to get us away from screens and get us face-to-face.”
Below are some video highlights from the Mobile Battle: