As part of the ongoing trend of layering digital data on top of the real world, Facebook has entered the location-based services game. Until now, this space has been occupied by Foursquare (see related column: "Taking social media beyond square one"), Gowalla and a few others.

Existing location-based services have tended to focus on developing a game-like user model based on personal status. Checking in can get you special status: such as "Mayor" for a particular location when using Foursquare, or Gowalla’s digital souvenirs.

This social-status-based gaming aspect has probably been an important and effective driver of initial user growth for these services — who doesn’t want to be "mayor" of their favorite hang-out spot? And when you don’t have a lot of social connections already inside the service you’re using, the built-in game aspect is the only fun to be had, really.

I frequently ask people what they like about using location-based services, to get a sense of what early adopters are getting out of using such services. They usually start with a mention of a mayorship or two, or that they have a "stamp" or two from someplace really cool. But it doesn’t take long for someone to say something like, "When I’m trying to decide where to go for lunch, I like knowing that one of my friends is over at August First Bakery."

My takeaway from that: The game aspect is sort of fun, but it’s really about finding your friends. So there are two primary reasons people use these tools.

  • Increased social status or display of social status by receiving some kind of reward for visiting places with which people self-identify. "I’m the mayor of (insert Cool Trendy Restaurant here)," for example.
  • Increasing opportunities to meet with people in the real world. "Hey, I saw your ‘check-in’ and figured I’d stop by and grab a coffee with you."

The second of these two — hanging out with people you already know — is the lasting and more meaningful reason to be using location-based services.

A general murmur, now that Facebook has entered location-based services, is that existing players such as Foursquare and Gowalla are toast. Given that the main generator of meaning for location-based services is centered on increasing face time with people you already know, Facebook has an obvious advantage.

Many people have already built a network of friends on Facebook. As a result, Facebook can skip the social game aspect of existing services and focus on the real meaning: connecting people together in the real world. I don’t think that the desire for the gaming feature of location-based services will necessarily decrease, it’s just that in the grand scope of things it doesn’t add significant meaning to most people’s lives.

Of course, since Facebook seems incapable of releasing a new feature that doesn’t come with a significant downgrade of your privacy, it’s worth thinking about who you’re dealing with. Facebook’s location-based service allows people who are not you to check-in to a location for you. This means that even if you don’t want to notify all of your Facebook connections where you are, someone else can still let them know by mentioning that you are someplace.

Of course, you can go in and adjust your privacy settings to prevent this from happening (it’s in Facebook’s privacy settings). Also you may want to disable your friends’ apps from getting your location, which you’ll have to change from the app settings).

Facebook appears to be more genuinely concerned about the accuracy and authenticity of the data it is gathering with their "Places" feature. The system for claiming your "Place" on Facebook is a bit more arduous than other services. You have to provide Facebook with your "Employer Identification Number," and other printed documentation, for example. People checking in to locations via Facebook need to be within a reasonable distance to that location — so you can’t check into a restaurant on the other side of town from where you are currently.

This focus on accuracy is a good thing for gathering a solid, clean data source on where people are, where they go, and maybe who they hang out with. It should add a nice bit of information to Facebook’s existing social graph data.

To use the new Places feature of Facebook for real estate, I imagine it will be much like what you would do for existing services, but with a larger audience of all your Facebook friends:

  • Let people know what you’re up to. Your activity is your marketing — your Facebook friends see that you’re working or doing things that are good for your customers.
  • Promoting interesting or useful local services by actually going to them and using them … and letting all your friends on Facebook know about them.
  • Helping people understand what your city/town/neighborhood is like by going to the different places in your neighborhood … and letting others know via Facebook Places.

One thing to keep in mind is that on Facebook you’re working primarily with people who already know you. For sphere marketers, using Facebook Places isn’t going to necessarily grow your sphere. Facebook Places can be used to increase your connection to people you already know.

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