Today’s award for off-the-wall feature to get people to use an online service goes to Whrrl. The local social service is similar to the more popular Loopt in that it lets users keep track of where their friends are and what they’re doing locally (both online and on mobile devices).
Its most recent feature lets users connect to fictional characters from HBO’s Entourage to see where they are, and what local establishments they’re patronizing. It’s kind of dumb, but also could be kind of smart in serving as a foundation to begin to place sponsored advertising within the context of the places that movie stars would hang out (for now it’s just a promotional play for Whrrl and the show itself, whose fifth season premiers Sunday).
In other words, L.A. restaurants, bars and boutiques could conceivably pay to be listed as the places where Vincent Chase is hanging out at any given moment. This becomes a more seamless and unobtrusive form of advertising than banners, and something like this could be an early sign of the local advertising that will be used (or at least experimented) in what is essentially virgin territory. The question is, will anyone use it?
That’s basically the issue with most social local apps for mobile devices. Like online social networking, there is a network effect that defines value and utility to users. And at this point, there probably aren’t enough users to make it worthwhile. There are a handful of these applications for the iPhone alone, which fragments a user base that is small to begin with. I use Loopt’s iPhone application, for example, and have about seven friends who also use it. This is just enough to make it marginally useful and appealing.
With user fragmentation comes the perennial local issue of advertiser fragmentation. This is made worse — like with users — by the small volume of advertisers currently in the mix. This will grow over time, but so will available services that continue to fragment the market. This will be a big challenge in mobile local search as it has been in online local search. The obvious challenge of inserting ads on a small screen makes it even worse. Then again, a mobile use case more conducive to local directional advertising makes it more opportune in some ways.
As we’ve examined, social media apps have inserted themselves in mobile local search in the medium’s early days. This three-way intersection of mobile, local and social makes sense because demographics drawn to mobile search are also drawn to social networking. It also fundamentally makes sense to bolt together the value proposition of finding things locally, with that of connecting with friends and finding out what they’re doing, where they’ve visited, and where they might want to meet up locally.
But there will be competition among the handful of these apps, for a relatively meager early adopter set of users. We have Whrrl, Loopt, Where and others for the iPhone. These were mostly put “on the map” by their iPhone applications, though they also stand alone as online services. Loopt is out ahead as the most popular one so far, but we’ll see how things shape up (or shake out) in the new segment of mobile/local/social.