Twitter and foursquare: the tipping point to getting local business online

Crepe cart in Seattle
Crepe cart in Seattle

Getting small local businesses to go online has been the holy grail of the Internet. I’ve written before about some of the reasons local business don’t go online and suggested several ways that they could use emerging technologies to get online with minimal effort.

That finally seems to be happening. Whether it’s a crepe cart in Seattle, ice cream store in San Francisco or a restaurant in Sedona, businesses are using the simplicity of Twitter for their virtual presence.

Most local businesses are too busy running their business to exert a lot of effort maintaining an online presence. If it’s not easy, it won’t get done. My favorite example of a small business reusing their existing work is the Webcam pointed at the wall of Beachwood BBQ where they list the pints on tap.

The challenge is that these businesses are only announcing their presence to existing customers or passersby. While this can help drive repeat visits through specials, notices of new arrivals, etc. it does little to bring in new customers.

That’s where foursquare comes in. This location-based social game allows users to “check in” to places they visit. Check in often enough and you become the “mayor” of that place. Savvy businesses have latched on to this and begun offering discounts to their mayors.

It has also been incorporated into the foursquare check in process. When I checked in at a restaurant in Seattle, I was presented with an offer at a nearby bar: happy hour all day for the mayor or $1 off well drinks for anyone else who checked in. (Checking in updates your social network status, providing further exposure for the business.) It’s one of the first examples of location-based mobile advertising that works. The process is a bit cumbersome now, but it provides a glimpse into where the technology is headed.

In addition to providing exposure to businesses, it solves a user problem that local search has long failed at: discovery. People often don’t know what they’re looking for when they’re out. Suggestions, even if they’re sponsored, help fill the discovery gap.

Foursquare offer
foursquare mayor offer

Flickr launches browser-based geolocation

flickr nearbyOne of the most exciting features of OS 3.0 on the iPhone is Safari’s implementation of the HTML 5 spec for browser-based geolocation. This allows Web sites to ask the browser for the user’s location, a capability that  has largely been limited to device-specific applications.

This new capability allows for easier-to-use location-based services. Flickr has jumped on this with a “photos taken nearby” application that will show you pictures centered around your location. Click on the “Photos taken nearby” link at m.flickr.com and you’ll instantly see a map of your location with nearby pictures.

The initial implementation is basic; you have no control of the pictures shown. It would be nice to see to search the nearby pictures for specific terms or to see pictures taken by someone. But as a proof-of-concept, it works great.

This is undoubtedly the first of many browser-based location services we’ve seen. Google has already announced that it will launch its Latitude service in a similar fashion. You can imagine other services such as local business search, movie showtime lookups, weather and local news provided automatically in the browser.

It’s a sign of how far we’ve come in mobile since the launch of iPhone 3G. It wasn’t long ago that I wrote asking carriers to set my location free. In principles of mobile design, I wrote “Don’t create an app if you don’t have to.” Now you don’t have to for location-based services.

My one complaint is that the browser sends back a very precise latitude/longitude. This is necessary for cerain applications, like mapping. But most applications don’t need that level of precision. Weather, for example, only needs a city level of precision. I’d like to be able to control what gets sent.

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