Social Networks

Vlingo 'Social Speech' Capabilities Differentiate Service

Speech recognition and voice search aren't "commodities" but there's a perception among some that they are. Vlingo is trying to move beyond simply being a voice services provider to a more holsitic "personal assistant" type service (a la Siri). Along those lines the company has integrated "check ins" with Foursquare to its roster of capabilities (on Android).

I tried it on my Android Evo and found that it worked very nicely. Several spoken "check in to X" tests worked smoothly. It's a lot easier than launching Foursquare and pulling up the venue -- even though that's fairly easy too. 

Another impressive feature is the ability to ask "where are my friends?" You simply speak this into Vlingo and it searches Foursquare for your contacts and pulls them up. That also worked easily and quite well. 

The video below illustrates how it works. 

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BrightKite Shows Next Phase of Check-in Apps

The novelty of mobile check-ins has largely worn off for the early adopters, hence the arrival of the phrase "check-in fatigue." Fairly quickly it became clear however that Foursquare, Gowalla, MyTown, Yelp and others using check-ins would become couponing or mobile loyalty plays. In some cases there's also branding angle too.

BrightKite was one of the first of the check-in services, if not the first one. But the company has been overshadowed by newer rivals. It created the novel Check.in to address check-in fatigue and LBS fragmentation. Geotoko tries to do a similar thing (aggregation) on the advertiser side and specifically for SMBs -- write once and promote your offer on many apps simultaneously.

BrightKite has been doing some interesting promotions with brands (e.g., Starbucks), as have others. Now there's another one with Visa and McDonalds. People are promoted to go to a McDonalds to subsequently get a $5 Visa card. It's pitched as $5 off on a McDonalds meal, which is a bit of a bait and switch. But the deal will be appealing to many BrightKite users.

To get the deal, of course, you have to physically visit a McDonalds and check in:  

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The power of this is that the ad unit leads you to a nearby McDonalds and the check-in closes the loop on the promotion for the merchant. The problem and challenge for brands and merchants is the relatively small audience of users overall for LBS-check-in apps and the even smaller one for any particular publisher, in this case BrightKite. 

While the overall audience is around 10 - 12 million in the US (based on the apps' self-reported numbers) this is still a pretty small audience. Yet it's wise for brands and marketers to be testing programs like this to see how they perform and how consumers react. This is one model for the future of mobile advertising: incentives to visit a store or retail location.

Google and others are doing similar things with maps and local search on mobile devices. And this is what's new and really compelling about mobile (beyond general ad performance): the ability to deliver someone to a store or physical place at a time of interest or need. 

These sorts of deals and promotions have the capacity to help push check-ins beyond the early adopters into the mainstream. Though deals by themselves may not be sufficient. Facebook because of its size and installed base also can help mainstream check-ins with Places. However that remains to be seen. But I believe the game dynamics and competition around badges and status is by themselves are unlikely to push LBS further into the mainstream.

Apple's 'On the Grid' Highlights LBS Apps

Apple has collected about a dozen location-based apps in a new featured iTunes area called "On the Grid." While there are many more apps that offer location as a central element of the experience -- yellow pages apps for example or various cityguides -- the bias appears to be  toward check-in style apps.

Apple should recognize that location and check-ins are not entirely synonymous.  And I would expect the selection to grow over time. Here's what's there now:

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Third party sites that monitor the app store recently indicated that it now exceeds 250,000 apps from more than 50,000 developers. Here's the distribution of apps from 148Apps.biz. Somewhat surprisingly books has taken the top spot from games.

Survey: 25% Do In-Store Price Comparisons on Phone

A survey of 3,600 US mobile consumers by Sterling Commerce found that 15% of mobile users have made purchases on their phones.This number is broadly consistent with other studies and surveys (see links below) for the US market.

In this survey population slightly less than 50% of respondents reportedly owned smartphones, whereas the number is 23% to 25% in the overall US mobile population. So the results can't be directly extrapolated to the population of mobile users. 

More findings (nearly verbatim):

  • 60%+ [of respondents] believe being able to verify product availability (on mobile device) at a particular store location is important to very important.
  • Nearly 25% use their phone while in a store to competitively price shop an item.
  • 20% of consumers currently use their phones to create shopping lists or baskets . . .
  • Two thirds are interested in using their mobile phone to scan and purchase items, thus enabling them to bypass checkout lines.
  • 25% of [respondents] believe that receiving specials/promotions (such as coupons) would be an important use for their mobile phone when shopping, although they were less enthusiastic about receiving advertising via their phones.
  • The survey also highlighted mobile shopping frustrations (small screen, keypad, slow speeds) and m-commerce concerns around security (for 28% of respondents).

A striking datapoint above is that 60% want store inventory information; while "only" 25% want offers or coupons while shopping. An equal percentage said they performed in-store price comparisons. As barcode scanning becomes more commonplace and easier to use, this latter figure will go way up. 

Separately, Insight Express recently found that 82% of survey respondents used their mobile phones while shopping in stores.  

Related posts:

Nokia Builds Mobile Craigslist for Developing Countries

There have been other mobile classifieds marketplaces but none with the potential heft of Nokia. Craigslist has many associated third party apps on the iPhone that mobilize its listings content; eBay of course has had great success in mobile, to name two big names. 

Nokia has now created Listings, a sales and services marketplace aimed right now at the developing world. It's only available in India during the beta test. 

The downloadable app features several categories of information:

  • Buy & Sell – Find or post items for sale
  • Jobs – Find or post a job
  • Local Services – Access or advertise services such as auto repairs, driver services, plumbers, etc.

The success of such a service is all about penetration and inventory. If lots of people use the service it could become quite successful and potentially generate meaningful revenue on a global basis. User experience is key but more important is getting the listings content into the system so that users show up.

The service is also more likely to succeed in countries where there aren't already established online marketplaces, which means developing nations primarily. Yet if the content is there and the UX is good enough it could potentially compete elsewhere in world, in Europe perhaps.

Game-Creep: United Gets into Mobile Gaming

Mobile gaming and game dynamics are very much in the marketing zeitgeist. And even companies that might be unlikely players, so to speak, are getting into casual gaming. As a case in point, over the weekend I got an email from United Airllines inviting me to play some casual games on my iPhone or Android device.

It's not entirely clear what the objective is here, given that United already has my email and all my details -- and I'm a loyalty program member. That's how they notified me in fact. 

It may be an effort to more deeply engage certain groups of users or to make them aware of various marketing programs the airline is running. I suspect it's the latter, since the theme of the game is "options," which is part of a larger promotional campaign from United. The prizes (lower right) are also part of the a la carte menu of "upsells" that United is pushing on its economy customers. 

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Forrester: Wait 'n' See on Foursquare

Forrester, late to the LBS party, tells most marketers to "wait and see" on Foursquare and other LBS apps/sites. The chief complaint is that adoption is not large enough for most large marketers to care and it's a mostly male audience according to the firm's survey data.

AdAge covers the findings:

Almost 80% of location-based service users are male. Close to 70% of them are between the ages of 19 and 35, and 70% have college degrees or higher. Forrester also found these location-app users to be influential . . . and they are especially receptive to mobile coupons and offers . . . This small audience is still attractive to some marketers. Forrester recommends that gaming, consumer electronics and sportswear marketers lead the way with testing these apps . . .

To its credit Forrester does recommend that some brands and marketers go after this audience, which is acknowledged to be populated with influencers. Here's the survey breakdown:

Image credit: AdAge

While the general underlying advice -- marketer know thy audience -- is sound, the danger is that this data and the coverage surrounding it will create a "negative halo" and cause some marketers to think they can "wait another year" before testing and engaging with mobile in general. They cannot.

There are a number of LBS apps and mobile websites focused on local that are mainstream now (e.g., Google, Yelp, Yellowbook). In addition, retailers and brands should be considering mobile loyalty programs (including SMS) and actively testing them today so that later they won't be in the "trial and error phase" -- while their competitors trounce them with innovative campaigns and best practices developed while they hestitated.

Mobile loyalty marketing and mobile brand marketing have have already proven effective and in many cases much more effective than online. (However mobile shouldn't be considered a stand-alone medium.)

Regarding the 4% audience metrics, they could mislead marketers as well. The US mobile Internet is already 75 million people operating at different levels of engagement. With more people buying smartphones daily those numbers may cross 100 million by the end of this year.

There's also value in being able to test campaigns and marketing tactics outside the glare of major media and large public audiences. In many ways these smaller audiences -- still in the millions -- offer a great opportunity for marketers to try and fail and refine their approaches for broader application later. 

CardStar Lets You Check-in at Checkout

CardStar offers mobile users the ability to manage all their loyalty cards from one app. We first wrote about innovative application in March:

Cardstar is a fascinating company that sits at the intersection of offers and deals, which is fast-growing category online, and mobile loyalty marketing which is already very powerful. In terms of the latter category, we ran into Jay Highley, formerly of Tetherball360. We discussed some of the response rates to these mobile loyalty campaigns and he was sharing data from actual campaigns, which saw response rates of 20% to 40% in some cases.

Today the company announced several upgrades for its iPhone app. The bigger deal is the announcement that it is integrating with Foursquare to enable check-ins when users are showing/scanning their specific store barcodes at checkout. Both Foursquare and CardStar are mobile loyalty apps; the difference is that CardStar requires on-site presence to scan a barcode, whereas Foursquare allows check-ins remotely.

"One of the major pain points with LBS check-ins continues to be the inability to verify the customer was actually on-location when they checked in," explained CardStar's press materials. "This is especially important now as more retailers offer incentives/rewards based on the number of check-ins and demand a more automated redemption system." 

Here are pre-digested quotes from CardStar CEO Andy Miller (not Quattro's Andy Miller):

  • "It's always been a marketer's dream to influence a consumer before, during and after the shopping experience. The CardStar platform will provide marketers the opportunity to present customers with the right offer at the right time on the right device."
  • "The typical CardStar user already launches the app at point-of-sale in retail locations, airports, gyms and libraries. The CardStar integration with Foursquare was the next logical step to deliver a more cohesive mobile experience."

Our recent Foursquare survey shows that a large percentage of SMBs (mostly restaurants) currently using Foursquare don't really know if it has helped their businesses. Roughly 70% of respondents said they were tracking check-ins, however. 

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Source: Opus Research, Search Influence, Dream Systems Media (6/10), SMBs offering incentives on Foursquare

CardStar has collected tremendous data on customer behavior that can be used to push and target offers to users of its apps, more of which are coming. It is evolving into a promotions platform beyond a simple but efficient customer card loyalty tool. 

Foursquare early on became a loyalty platform and is becoming a new customer acquisition tool as well. It will be interesting to see whether this CardStar-Foursquare integration becomes a model for others and, then, whether Foursquare becomes a Twitter-like promotions platform that pushes offers through third party apps such as CardStar. 

My suspicion is yes it will.

What Is Facebook's Next Mobile Move?

At the Mobile Beat conference Eric Tseng, head of mobile products for Facebook (and former Google-Android exec.), announced that Facebook now has 150 million "active" mobile users (that means daily usage). That's up from 100 million in February.

Against that backdrop there are indications that, at least in the US Facebook's growth, may have slowed. The company however sees mobile as a driver of its next phase of growth. Overall, there are more than 500 million Facebook users globally. 

Tseng suggested that Facebook would soon become a "mobile platform." That means that Facebook will be extending "the social graph" to third party applications and sites. The Open Graph API and the Like button will also make their way into mobile according to Tseng.

Facebook is poised to roll out some sort of location-based service. Its exact form is uncertain. I've argued that instantly Facebook would be a huge mobile ad network should it decide that it wants to become one. Yet there are reasons to believe that won't happen in the near term. 

Facebook's forthcoming Q&A service is also one that could be a potent location-based recommendations engine. And the Like button data will be a huge source of local favorites and recommendations. Third parties will be tapping all this data to enhance their apps and sites. 

The company sees mobile devices as a growth engine party because in developing countries (e.g., India) mobile is the primary (and maybe only) tool for Internet acces. This is why Facebook developed its SMS-based "0.facebook.com" site earlier this year. 

Yelp: 27% of Searches Now from iPhone

Yelp said that in May it had 32 million unique visitors, making it one of the leading local sites on the Internet. The company also released some data about iPhone usage, which are quite impressive. This is verbatim from the associated Yelp blog post:

  • On average, 27% of all Yelp searches come from our iPhone App. That number dips during the week when Yelp.com traffic surges. Then on the weekend, it moves up again as people pull out their Yelp mobile apps when they're on the go - a trend we've already been seeing for quite some time!
  • Last month, over half a million calls were made to local businesses directly from our Yelp iPhone App. That's about 1 call every 5 seconds to a business as a result of Yelp.
  • Nearly a million people generated point-to-point directions to a local business from their Yelp iPhone App last month.
  • In the past 30 days, Yelp for iPhone has had over 1.4 million unique visitors.

Sites like Zillow and Trulia have expressed that about 10% to 15% of traffic comes from their mobile apps. The Yelp number is huge by comparison and shows how significant mobile has become to the company's overall brand and strategy.

Yelp's content and use cases, in most cases, are a direct fit for mobile. Non entertainment related verticals might not see the same levels of traffic and usage. But the data above illustrate that the mobile market and mobile strategies cannot be put off by publishers and advertisers for much longer.  

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Yelp has also taken another step in the direction of Foursquare et al by adding badges:

Now when a user checks-in to a combination of businesses, they will be able to earn "Yelp Badges." Badges you earn will help show off where you're checking in. For example, if a yelper loves to get their nigiri on at sushi restaurants, they can earn the "Sushi Sensei" badge . . . Once earned, badges can be shared with friends both via the Yelp iPhone app, as well as on Twitter and Facebook.

If users are checking into the same businesses in a given time period and/or neighborhood, they can also earn "Royal" status. Got the most check-ins at a business? You're the Duke, good sir (or Duchess, for the ladies). Most Dukedoms in a 'hood? You're the Baron! Most in the city? You're the King! . . .

Social Networking Fastest Growing Mobile Activity

ComScore released data today that reveals social networking as the fastest growing activity/category in mobile. This mirrors Nielsen data out yesterday that showed Facebook as the top mobile application on most of the top smartphone platforms.

ComScore breaks down the numbers in terms of app and mobile browser access: 

In April 2010, 69.6 million mobile users accessed an application on their phone, an increase of 28 percent from the previous year . . . Social Networking experienced the strongest growth in app access, increasing 240 percent to 14.5 million users.

Nearly 73 million mobile users accessed their browser in April, an increase of 31 percent from the previous year . . . Social Networking ranked as the fastest-growing category accessed via browser, growing 90 percent from the previous year to reach almost 30 million users . . .

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Don't take any of these numbers as exact or gospel; they reflect however the direction the market is headed.

It's interesting to note the differences between the app-using and browser-using audiences. Browser users aren't accessing maps, compared to app users. In addition, search is more widely used by the browser crowd than in the app world. Weather also doesn't really appear in the browser environment. And news is less popular there too. 

Nielsen Provides Mobile Apps Data Download

The good people at Nielsen have just released some interesting survey based data about mobile applications and their relative popularity. Nielsen surveyed "4,200 people who had downloaded an application in the past 30 days."

Nielsen says that 21% of American mobile phone owners had a smartphone in Q4 2009. The number is now closer to 24% per Nielsen, our data and InsightExpress. The most popular smartphone apps, according to the Nielsen survey, are Facebook, Google Maps and Weather Channel. 

The following graphic shows the category breakdown with smartphones in yellow and feature phones in blue. One interesting thing to observe: regardless of handset type the category leaders are essentially the same. Smartphones just seem to make it easier for people to do what they're already doing otherwise. 

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While weather and maps are both local and two of the top three categories, many more of the categories on the list address offline activity: travel, entertainment/food, movies and some portion of the shopping category. 

Below are the top apps by smartphone platform, according to the survey:

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Notice that Facebook is the top app on all platforms other than Android. Google search is also not among the top apps except on the Android platform. 

Loopt Does Foursquare with a Twist

Despite the fact that Loopt has more than three million users it's largely running in place. Superseded by larger and more established brands as they've entered the mobile segment (i.e., Facebook), Loopt has tried to reinvent itself a number of times. For example, it went initially from a pure mobile social network to a Yelp-like application. And now it's doing a version of Foursquare -- with a twist.

Loopt's latest effort to renew itself is called Loopt Star. The idea is almost identical in concept to Foursquare, however the rewards for checking in to local places are more direct and tangible. Like Foursquare, MyTown and Gowalla, among others, Loopt Star is a "game" but explicitly conceived as a mobile loyalty program for stores and consumers as well.

Check in at stores and branded locations, gain points and rewards that translate into tangible offers, discounts, free stuff and so on.  There's also a leaderboard. Users who check in most frequently can become the "boss" (rather than mayor) of their favorite places. 

Loopt previously added local coupons to its app but this is a more structured and coherent effort. And it could turn out to be the one that gives Loopt new appeal and finally attracts a buyer.

Loopt Star relies on Facebook and users' Facebook networks instead of trying to create its own "organic" user base. In so doing Loopt hopes that it can more quickly gain adoption and momentum for Loopt Star. Yet it's also possible that Loopt Star will strike its target audience as duplicative of their existing LBS "games."

The LBS gaming phenomenon has yet to go mainstream. Accordingly there's an opportunity to build an app or service that will broadly appeal to mainstream consumers. That app could be Shopkick, which has yet to launch. It seeks to marry LBS gaming and retail specifically. And depending on the execution, it could appeal to mainstream shoppers and women in particular. 

Millennial: Coupons, Lead-Gen Hot on Network

Millennial Media just released its April SMART report. The company is now putting out two reports: Mobile Mix, which discusses devices and share on its network, and SMART, which is about advertiser tactics and categories.

Here are a few interesting excerpts from the April SMART document. 

  • Millennial Media claims 60 million unique users for its network out of 73 million total US mobile Web users (per Nielsen)
  • Many marketers are using mobile as a lead-gen and/or a list building tool for future marketing via other channels. The top two types of actions featured in Millennial advertiser campaigns were "submit form" and "join/subscribe." Those action types were closely followed, however, by "place call," "application download" and "watch video." (Mostly direct response actions.)
  • 11% of the "campaign actions" on Millennial's network involved social media in some way; driving to a company's existing Facebook page for example. 
  • 16% of campaigns on Millennial's network used geo-targeting. 
  • 13% of campaigns used rich media 

Ten percent of advertisers in the "restaurants & retail" category used a coupon offer of some sort, according to Millennial.

Below is a drill down on that category and the various calls to action offered in the campaigns. We can probably count "retail promotion" in the deals/coupons category as well. In addition the "join/subscribe" call to action here will probably be teased in many instances by the promise of future discounts and deals notifications I'm guessing:

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Finally here are the top advertising categories on the Millennial network:

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One thing that's somewhat surprising and interesting is that only 16% of campaigns are using any sort of geo-targeting given that mobile offers it with precision. This likely reflects concerns over lack of audience reach with geo-targeted campaigns or perhaps the inability of agencies to formulate geo-targeted campaigns for one reason or another. 

Millennial data also suggest that marketers are using mobile at or near the point of sale to capture emails and other data for future marketing purposes ("join/subscribe" and "submit form"). However their campaigns don't seem to equally be pushing users to the point of sale to drive purchases. I could be misinterpreting the data but if I'm correct is a missed opportunity. 

Not Quite a Browser, Firefox to Launch 'Home' on iPhone

After Apple permitted the launch of the Opera Mini browser on the iPhone, the question was: would Firefox follow? For several technical reasons a number people argued it would not. However Firefox is apparently about to launch an application called "Firefox Home."

Not quite a browser it syncs with Firefox online and provides access to tabs and bookmarks (based on Firefox Weave, now Sync) from the PC. It's a clever workaround Apple's technical restrictions.

According to a Mozilla blog post:

Firefox Home for iPhone is part of a broader Mozilla effort to provide a more personal Web experience with more user control. For devices or platforms where we’re unable to provide the “full” Firefox browser (either technically or due to policy), we aim to provide users with “on the go” instant access to their personal Firefox history, bookmarks and open tabs on their iPhones, giving them another reason to keep loving Firefox on their desktops.

Why is this useful?

  1. Left work in a hurry? You can pick up where you left off with access to the list of tabs you just had open on your desktop.
  2. Need those directions to that restaurant you were just reading about on your desktop? The confirmation code for your flight? Just start typing in the Awesome Bar and those pages will be right at your fingertips.
  3. Does it drive you crazy to have  to enter the full URL on your iPhone that you’ve visited several times from your desktop? You won’t need to anymore with this app.

This PC-->mobile sync feature is highly valuable and a competitive advantage for Firefox, which is now battling Google's Chrome browser for mindshare among the early adopter crowd. Mobile Firefox is important, though perhaps not absolutely critical, to the ongoing health and success of Firefox overall. The Android Platform should permit the launch of a full Firefox browser. Frankly I'm surprised it's not out yet. 

Here's a video that shows a bare bones demo:

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Google Latitude API Announced

Google previously said that it has more than 3 million users of Latitude, more than comparable LBS competitors. Now the company has released an API for developers to enable them to access Latitude user location. This is very much like what Yahoo! did with Fire Eagle (although that project has languished to some degree). Google itself did something like this earlier through Google Gears with Geolocation (now defunct).

According to the Google Mobile blog:

Since launching Latitude, our team has been talking about all the cool things you could do with your continuously updated Latitude location. While we’ve built some of our ideas, there are simply too many exciting ones for us to do alone. Instead, we wanted to let you safely share your Latitude location with third parties who could create apps that do more with your location . . .

We’ve also learned that making your phone’s continuous location available in the background is tricky to do accurately and efficiently -- just imagine your phone’s battery life if several apps were continuously getting your location in different ways? With this in mind, we built a free and open Latitude API that lets the third-party developers you choose start using your updated location in new ways without reinventing the wheel.

There are various APIs and tools in the market to get or correct location on mobile devices. The Latitude API however extends to websites as well as mobile devices. Greater location precision enables better ad targeting as well as some content personalization.

What to Make of MyTown's $20 Million

There was considerable coverage of yesterday's announcement of $20 million in new VC funding for Booyah's "geo social game" MyTown. The money brings MyTown to nearly $30 million in venture funding to date. The round was led by Accel Partners. Previous investors Kleiner Perkins and DAG Ventures also participated. 

MyTown is the most "game-like" of the three competitors typically mentioned in the same breath, which include Foursquare and Gowalla. But in the larger context of LBS mobile apps and/or local search tools they are merely the "flavor of the month" among many other providers of the same or similar information. (Twitter and Facebook have yet to get deeply involved here.)

Beyond the silly "location wars" meme, the central question is whether these geo-social games are going to become "mainstream"? Or if they're not going to become "mainstream" are they going to draw sufficiently large audiences to make them effective advertising vehicles and revenue generators?

I would argue that whether or not these particular LBS apps succeed they're helping create a new culture of local and mobile behavior. I've discussed this in some detail in a client-only report: How Geo-Social Gaming is Changing Local Mobile Search. 

According to an interview with Business Insider Booyah CEO Keith Lee says that the $20 million will be used to further enhance the gaming elements of MyTown or create new LBS games: 

Because as Lee explains, the "check-in" is going to be a commodity in a matter of months -- everyone will have a "check-in" feature, ranging from the likes of Foursquare to Facebook and Google. It's what happens after the check-in that is going to be valuable, Lee says, and he and Booyah plan to use location data specifically to make games.

Foursquare, Gowalla and MyTown are interesting because they're hybrids: part social network, part cityguide and, to varying degrees, part game. Accordingly you might be inclined to dismiss MyTown as merely a "game," but if you think about it as a viable alternative to Citysearch, Yelp, yellow pages or Google it makes the stakes higher and the discussion more serious. 

MyTown gets data and ads from CityGrid/Citysearch; it also shows Google display ads and could easily implement branded sponsorships and/or a Farmville-style program of credits or currency. That would mean people would buy credits to accelerate progress or toward the purchase of locations. MyTown is similar to Monopoly in many respects.  

MyTown claims more than two million users. Foursquare has more than a million. By comparison, Google says Latitude has more than three million users. Google is taking the LBS phenomenon very seriously and recently invested in another location-based social game called SCVNGR. And if Google Buzz is ultimately going to gain usage it's going to be in mobile, where it offers some of the same "tips" and annotations about places offered on Foursquare and Gowalla. 

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Foursquare, Gowalla and MyTown are all obvious, near-term takeover targets. Foursquare has reportedly been in discussions with Yahoo! and others and is trying to decide whether to remain independent. It probably will for the immediate future. MyTown is probably the least likely of the three to be bought by a traditional local search or portal player. I could imagine a gaming company such as a Zynga ultimately acquiring Booyah. 

As the major features of these LBS game sites are emulated and absorbed by others (check-ins, coupons/deals, tips and local annotations) the question becomes: does their novelty whither and die in a year or two or can they develop sufficient momentum and critical mass to be self-sustaining? 

Related: Foursquare Growing Like Crazy: Up To 600,000 Check-Ins Per Day

Where Shows Coupons to Those Who Check-in

On Foursquare and elsewhere mobile/LBS check-ins wind up being a form of mobile loyalty: check in the most, become the mayor, get free stuff. However Where is putting a slightly different spin or check-ins and local deals. The company is now going to be exposing people to local coupons and deals at the moment they check in:

When using WHERE to help discover local places, consumers will now receive coupons from local merchants when they check-in to a location. WHERE offers one of the most comprehensive collections of mobile coupon and offer inventory available from restaurants, retail stores, spas, and other service providers. With hundreds of thousands of deals presented daily, WHERE is a leader in helping mobile users find great deals nearby. 

Where is aggregating deals from multiple sources (as with its local ad network) including the new DealMap

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Rather than a loyalty tool, rewarding people for their repeat business, this version of mobile coupons/deals become more of a new customer acquisition tool for local businesses nearby. 

Skype Lowering Prices, Unveiling Group V-Chat

Once Skype becomes reliable enough and the quality is consistent enough -- it's getting pretty close -- it will begin to eat into carrier voice revenues. I don't have the most recent data but it must be destroying international long distance. As of the end of last year, Skype had well over 500 million users globally.

The company today revealed cheaper and more flexible calling plans:

Starting tomorrow, Skype is rolling out calling plans to more than 170 countries that provide customers with a savings of up to 60 percent compared to Skype's standard Pay As You Go rates.

Customers will also have more choice with subscription plans available in 60-minute to unlimited packages, and the ability to buy 1-month, 3-month and 12-month calling subscriptions.

Skype's range of subscriptions start from as little as €0.89* ($1.09/£.69) per month and offer effective rates as low as €0.01 ($.01/£.01) per minute to almost any destination around the globe.

Basically you can now get an unlimited calling plan for the US and Canada (landlines and mobiles) for $36 per year. That's effectively the cost of one month of domestic landline service from AT&T with no long distance.

The only thing that keeps people from defecting from traditional carriers is the quality issue (and/or their lack of awareness). And with more WiFi and soon WiMax/LTE coverage people may feel increasingly confident about considering not subscribing to a mobile voice plan.

T-Mobile in the US now has data only and AT&T's iPad plans are data only as well. My iPad and iPod Touch devices are both phones using Skype. The separation of data from voice subscriptions means that voice revenues will decline over time. The barrier for Skype adoption on mobile devices is reliability and quality.

Skype is also unveiling a group video chat capability next week that will be free at first but cost money over time. Depending on the quality of that service the question needs to be asked: why would you pay for dedicated screens or expensive video conferencing functionality -- ever again? 

A Bidding War for Foursquare?

Foursquare is a little over a year old and it seems that it is now looking at $100 million buyout offers from a range of players that are rumored to include Yahoo!, Microsoft and Facebook. I had long ago predicted that Facebook would buy Foursquare, but Facebook probably doesn't have to if it does location right.

Facebook was also rumored to be looking at Loopt, which is now the equivalent of the Palm of LBS services.

We previously wrote "How ‘Geo-Social Gaming’ Is Changing Local Mobile Search," and Foursquare is the most visible of the companies in the segment. Foursquare would be a tremendous asset to Yahoo or Microsoft, but would they be able to keep its momentum going? That's not clear. Large companies that buy startups often sap the vitality of those smaller companies over time.

It would probably be a different matter at Facebook. But, as I said, Facebook likely doesn't "need" Foursquare, especially if its Open Graph strategy succeeds; it will have more valuable local information than any other player in the market. It could then do a wide range of things with that data. 

Foursquare has recently started paying more attention to the (small) business side of its services. But winning in the SMB market is a tough, long-term slog. It also has a number of high profile deals with cable TV companies and publishers. Those are more promising in terms of near-term and maybe even long-term revenue. 

But the temptation for CEO/co-founder Dennis Crowley is to take the money and run vs. try and build Foursquare into a sustainable business. I can tell you that if I were him I would probably take the money.

Yelp declined to be bought out by Google and instead took a $100 million round of financing. Yelp told me that will partly fuel international growth and engineering hires but a large chunk of that will be devoted to salespeople, needed to obtain ad revenues from SMBs.

If Foursquare continues on as an independent entity it will be going up against that very same Yelp, yellow pages, Google, (maybe Twitter), newspapers and eventually Facebook, among numerous others. Just getting SMB attention is a big challenge, let alone selling anything to them. 

While it's tempting to argue "we don't know how big Foursquare could get" and take a big round, I would bet there will be an acquisition.