Benefitting from a Location-centric View of Social Networks

IN-DEPTH: Interview with Loopt’s Co-Founder and Chief Software Architect Alok Deshpande

EyeForTravel It is fascinating to know how some of today’s applications are allowing users to connect with people and the places around them.
One such application, Loopt, says it offers a location-first view of the world, “shining a spotlight on friends and places around you, whether they’re on Loopt or Facebook”.
Loopt recently introduced the latest version of its application, which magnifies the app’s friend- and place-finding capabilities with new features and a completely updated design.
Elaborating on the new version and also the utility of such application from the travel industry’s perspective, Loopt’s Co-Founder and Chief Software Architect Alok Deshpande, says, “When travelling, users find themselves in novel and varied places and its then that Loopt’s new place features really shine. Loopt will notify users of hot places nearby, places they may have never thought to visit, or places that would have been buried in a travel guide.”
“But beyond that, it shows them what friends have done in an area, adding a social twist to travelling. This is works great for staycations, or vacations,” Deshpande said. He added, “Loopt also makes it easy to meet up with friends in a city – you can “Ping” them with your location (like a geo-based text message), and easily get directions to where they are. These tools on Loopt play well for more social vacations.”
“I think there are several powerful trends that point to the value these apps can bring. According to October 2010 research from Xobni and Harris Interactive, 72% of people in the U.S. check e-mail during their time off. You can assume that a lot of this email checking is happening from a mobile device, and we’re seeing a similar trend. Some of the highest location-sharing rates are when people are traveling. There are photos to share, exciting experiences to detail – the most popular times to share are when you break from the monotony of the everyday. Travel perfectly embodies this sharing state of mind,” said Deshpande, who is scheduled to speak at the forthcoming Social Media Strategies for Travel USA 2011 conference, to be held in San Francisco this year (March 2-3, 2011).
Deshpande spoke to EyeforTravel’s Ritesh Gupta about the location services space and lot more. Excerpts:
It is being mentioned that Loopt is at the confluence of three extremely powerful trends: mobile, social and location. How do you assess the current utility of mobile applications such as one owned by Loopt from the travel industry’s perspective?
Even with all the information out there – reviews, ratings and write-ups – many people prefer getting their information the old-fashioned way: by yakking across the fence to a friend. Loopt lets you see what places are popular with your friends, sometimes bypassing the need for a mass email to local friends on a good place to eat. You can easily see on Loopt where your friends have been numerous times – essentially, a behavioral endorsement.  The ability to access this endorsement on your mobile phone and in real-time is truly valuable.
To what extent has your company succeeded in working on a set of services for the travel industry that have enabled hotels and airlines to become location-smart and improve the way they communicate with their customers?
The great thing about the location services space is that it is user-driven. Brands can come in and play (and they should), but right now we’re seeing great enthusiasm from mobile users to drive conversation and to update their friends on their whereabouts. There are a few things that the travel industry can do to boost the conversation and amplify its effect:
·      Prompts: Remind people to check-in. A gentle reminder never hurts.
·      Deals: Free stuff gets people out of their seats, gets them moving, and gets them dreaming of travel. This isn’t a new concept for the travel industry, but location-based rewards are a great vehicle for high-value deals. A great example is a reward we ran with Virgin America to promote the airline’s new routes to Mexico. We set up taco trucks in LA and San Francisco, plus a setup at LAX and SFO. If Loopt users checked-in within a four-hour lunch-time period, they got 2-for-1 tickets to Mexico. This reward was only offered in two cities, yet it got national news coverage. Virgin was able to interact directly with loyal customers and able to get tons of buzz about the new routes. The promotion contributed to the fifth-highest revenue day for Virgin America.
·      Get active, understand how it works: These applications are getting more and more simple. Travel brands should visit their app store of choice and start downloading… check out your locations, is the info correct? How many people are checking in here? You can get a lot of insight by poking around, so jump in and start experimenting. It’s a fun space to do it, with a potential for high, meaningful engagement.
Recently, a hotelier pointed out that travel is the most social form of commerce because consumers are in a constant state of asking “where am I” and “is this the right place to be”.   How do you think social integration can be a huge “delighter” with the guest experience at or near the property?
For one, if I’m looking for a place to eat, and my phone shows me that one of those places has 2-for-1 drinks, I’m likely going to go to the place with the deal. The place that’s out there engaging has a leg up over the competition and a real opportunity to delight that customer and reel them in. Also, social media is a great way to follow up with customers. Encourage them to follow the business on Twitter or like it on Facebook, where they’ll be able to get updates and special offers. With all the tools out there today, the customer relationship shouldn’t end when a person walks out the door of a hotel, restaurant or plane.
As far as location-based marketing is concerned, there are several applications that present brand building opportunities, access to personalised data for targeted advertising, and real-time feedback from visitors. How do you think the travel industry is today making use of proximity or location-based marketing for deeper meta data gathering?   
I think we are just beginning to see the travel industry leverage location-based marketing. From offering rewards to users that visit a hotel to giving away flights, there have been a number of interesting examples of how brands have further connected with visitors.
Another focus of marketers will be better understanding who their visitors are. I think the best of those efforts will remember that location data is sensitive and users need a reason to share it more publicly. That can be identifying with a brand they love or receiving real value; the more value the more likely they will be to publicly endorse a place and in the process improve marketers’ analytics.
It is highlighted that marketers need to quickly learn the appropriate way to converse with consumers using location based applications, if they are to succeed. What’s your viewpoint regarding the same?
Like all emerging mediums, there’s a lot of experimentation and learning that’s happening in this space, which is what makes it so exciting. I would just encourage marketers to be creative and get in the game by trying something. You have the opportunity to interact with consumers in completely new ways and to align your brand with any portion of a user’s life.
What’s on your agenda for the next 12 months or so?
The mobile phone is ripe with still-unlocked potential. Naturally, more smartphones with faster networks and better GPS chips will make all geo-location services richer and more useful. You’ll simply be able to do more on the move. Everyday, more people completely rely on their smartphone as their computer; we’ll be able to offer them services targeted to where they and their friends are, right now in the world.
In a not-so-distant future (for this space as a whole), there are going to be new ways of monetising a user’s presence, beyond just hyper-targeted, local banner ads. With advances in location technologies, people will be able to learn about what’s going on by querying the geo-social content layer that overlays their physical location. The utility of these apps is going to become much more relevant.
Loopt’s Co-Founder and Chief Software Architect Alok Deshpande is scheduled to speak at the forthcoming Social Media Strategies for Travel USA 2011 conference, to be held in San Francisco this year (March 2-3, 2011).
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