Starbucks Takes Mobile Local Search Into Its Own Hands

Late on Friday I saw CNET blogger Caroline McCarthy’s report on Starbucks’ new SMS-based mobile local search app. Like Google SMS and Yahoo! Mobile, any text-enabled mobile device can send a search query to a five-digit number that returns locations of nearby results. In Starbucks’ case this means sending your ZIP code to “MYSBUX” to receive a text message that has the locations of the nearest three Starbucks.

The combination of Starbucks and mobile local search is interesting, given that it is often the first example given by anyone trying to explain what location-based services will be all about (“You’ll be walking by a Starbucks, and get hit with a promotion for coffee on your mobile device”).

There has been widespread agreement that this scenario will probably never happen because of the opt-in component that will be necessary to push any mobile ad proposition forward. This realization has doused a lot of the enthusiasm surrounding push-based mobile marketing while turning up the volume on mobile local search (sometimes referred to as MoLo).

Starbucks, driven by some of the leftover excitement over push-based LBS, has now jumped on the MoLo bandwagon by utilizing SMS, currently its most prevalent form. More robust platforms are meanwhile in experimentation phases and are awaiting greater mobile search and smartphone adoption.

Caroline McCarthy points out that this application is only useful if you know what ZIP code you’re in, which isn’t usually the case for travelers. Those who can find out their ZIP code might use GPS, in which case they already have a way to find Starbucks (and a more robust one at that). And if you know what ZIP code you’re in, you might be in familiar territory where you already know the lay of the land, Starbucks-wise. In any case, this could be unnecessary in some places where you can see three Starbucks from any given spot [;)].

But it will be interesting to see if this gains traction among the legions of Starbucks faithfuls, given the sheer size of this population (and we are talking about an addictive substance here). In doing so, a nice by-product could be increased awareness and comfort levels with SMS-based search (and mobile local search in general).

Its success will come down to a question of whether or not MoLo is conducive to finding your next mocha. The answer could help shed light on some of the larger questions surrounding demand for mobile search as a tool to find products locally. A breakdown of MoLo’s usefulness and traction across different categories of products and among various demographics will also be important areas in which to drill down.

Other important questions deal with search formats and device form factors. SMS is popular, but wireless voice search and free DA are gaining steam and seeing some interesting innovation from companies such as Tellme.

Lastly, as a related item, The New York Times‘ Bob Tedeschi has an article today about local shopping sites, with an emphasis on some of the wireless applications being developed by the likes of NearbyNow (covered in our past blog post here).

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