Taking Location-Based Services From Incomprehensible To Indispensable

There are some things that are really, really popular. But they’ll never be mainstream. Like LARPing. And dressing animals up like people. And dressing people up like animals. I don’t condone the latter two, but LARPing is pretty sweet.

There are other things that are really, really popular and will go mainstream. I’m ignoring all the naysayers out there, and am going to say location-based services are one of those things. Maybe not exactly the generation of LBS services we have right now, but mark my words, LBS will go mainstream.

Here’s the deal. It takes a while for some technology-related trends to gain broader appeal. Just a few examples of real-life technology breakthroughs that people have sworn would never take off, in no particular order: the Internet, texting, email, electricity, and the iPod. Before I get attacked for comparing location-based services to electricity, let me just clarify: I am not comparing location-based services to electricity.

I’m implying that everyone has doubts about certain types of technologies becoming ubiquitous before they do. Take this piece from Mark Weiser of PARC from 1991, predicting that not only computers, but tablets would gain widespread traction. At the time, and for years later, people were skeptical. Newsweek declared in 1995 that the Internet would never replace a daily newspaper, affect education, or change the way government works. So yeah, Newsweek was all kinds of wrong. (Didn't they sell for a dollar recently?)

The opening line of Mark Weiser’s visionary piece is particularly striking:

“The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”

I couldn’t agree more. The hard part, of course, is making a technology that "disappears," but I believe location-based services are well on their way to doing just that. To break down that macro-level challenge a bit, here are a few other things that share common space with ubiquity:

  • The hook. Like every questionably good pop song that has mass appeal, every mainstream technology has to have some kind of hook. For our users, it has at a very basic level been the prospect of discovering new places, unlocking rewards, sharing, and having fun. Fun is an awesome effect, but just a subset of the ultimate hook--and consumer promise--making life better for the people who use it. Texting forever eliminated the conversation that should have taken 30 seconds but dragged on for 15 minutes. We’ve been hard at work on ways to build location into people’s daily lives, to remove annoyances, increase efficiency, and let us really focus on, and even heighten, the joy of where we are.
  • The captive audience. There are lots of times when we wish we could be somewhere else, but we can’t. Like that "don’t-use-your-oxygen-mask-as-a-floatation-device" spiel before takeoff in a plane. Or the grocery store checkout line. Or school. Smart marketers have taken advantage of these opportunities to plug concepts to the mainstream population for decades. So why not do the same with location? For example, the wildly popular Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art had people lined up around the block to see it. We worked with them to create “The Taming of the Queue” to educate and entertain, rather than queue and complain. In the process, the Met connected soon-to-be visitors with other museum exhibits within their view while in line.
  • Solving real problems.  Everyone’s seen an infomercial where a gadget seemed invented for a problem no one ever had. Take Perfect Meatloaf, for example. People who aim to provide perfect meatloaf tech solutions will never get anywhere. Getting real just comes from talking to people about what they need. Figuring out what they want if there were no limits to what we could achieve. For example, one of the ways I expect location to evolve is to tie more directly intro transactions. LBS services can (and do) motivate huge amounts of traffic flow to places. Consumers want rewards, but ones that aren't super-awkward to redeem, and businesses want to be able to track the effect these tools have on their bottom line, not their tweet-stream. Essentially, both sides want LBS, but they want it solving real problems and they want it, for lack of a better phrase, kind-of invisible.

Certain technologies are doomed to fail. Others are guaranteed to succeed. LBS is unique technology in that it seems doomed to succeed.

It's going to take a while, it's going to be messy, it's going to require a lot of innovation and a ton of iteration. But naysayers out there take note: LBS is already on the tried-and-true path from incomprehensible to indispensable.

Author Seth Priebatsch is the founder and chief ninja at SCVNGR and LevelUp. 

[Image: Flickr user Dan Nguyen @ New York City]

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