When will Facebook Places become essential?

I’ve been exploring Facebook Places recently. Not just because it’s one of the latest big online tools and predicted to become the hottest thing since sliced toast, but because I want to really see and understand how it might change the world. That’s what some commentators are saying. Is it real or the usual technology hyperbole?

I know that it’s been around for a year or so now, and has a big rival in foursquare, but it seems to have taken longer than expected to creep into the consciousness of shop and restaurant owners.

On the surface it appears to have very little use. Many people update their Facebook status with a location, as in ‘I’m at the National Theatre’, so the Places option allows them to update their profile with this kind of information automatically, based on the GPS tools inside most smart phones today.

So far, so little of interest, it just saves time on profile updates… but think a little beyond the profile updates.

Facebook has over half a billion regular users worldwide. That is a phenomenal network of people to be connected in this way. Now imagine the value to retailers, advertisers, theatres, musicians… in fact anyone selling a service that depends on people being at a specific place to consume the service.

It suddenly starts clicking together. Google revolutionised advertising when they created AdWords in the 1990s. Facebook may revolutionise advertising all over again when they introduce the knowledge of the place and location of an individual and make it realistically possible for an advertiser to aim directly at an audience of one.

Think it sounds far fetched? Well you have clicked the ‘Like’ button on many products, services, and artists I’m sure. It seems like an easy leap of the imagination to think of how all these ‘likes’ can be connected to my physical presence – if any of those services I like are nearby then what stops them contacting me now?

Nothing really, other than we have not become used to this laser-like marketing yet and it’s going to feel uncomfortable to find Pizza Express sending me a 25% off voucher because they know it is lunchtime and I am walking past a branch.

Tom Cruise demonstrated something similar in the film ‘Minority Report’ where advertising posters changed depending on who was looking at the poster (the poster could scan the retina of the person). We are not quite there, but Facebook using knowledge of your likes, dislikes, and physical location is getting close to that model of advertising targeted at the individual.

Facebook Places has yet to achieve its potential due to the justified security concerns, but as time goes on I expect some will welcome these interactions. Welcome to another technology becoming a reality when it was once just an idea in a science fiction movie.
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