Don’t make me a target

Brightkite ARG
The augmented reality view in Brightkite’s mobile app.

Brightkite, a location-tracking service, recently launched version 2.0 of their service after merging with Limbo and taking $9M in funding this past April.

In recent months I’ve found myself using Foursquare more and more, though I still update Brightkite from time to time since it powers the location status on my personal homepage. In some ways, Foursquare is to Brightkite what Twitter was to Jaiku: a more personal, streamlined experience that builds on a core activity and dispenses will all other distractions. And, through game-like mechanisms, get you to perform the core activity more regularly (i.e. mayorships in the case of Foursquare, and, up until recently, follower counts in the case of Twitter).

I bring this up because I just stumbled upon Brightkite’s advertising section of their website, and there’s some extremely interesting stuff in there!

First of all, it’s very clear that Brightkite is one of the first (at least in my experience) to be pushing their location platform as a walk-up-and-create ad platform, much in the same way that Facebook is (you can start creating your own Facebook ads here).

Like Brightkite, Facebook gives you a considerable amount of control over the targeting of your advertisement as well, which leverages Facebook’s horde of user-contributed demographic information:

Facebook Ad Targetting

But here’s where Brightkite’s platform gets interesting: this class of mobile ads — which we’ve known have been coming for some time (so-called proximity marketing) — target the individual based on their location and real-time behavior. Thus, when a user engages in some kind of action or activity tracked by Brightkite, the system can respond with an “appropriate” ad in real-time, triangulated off of a number of aspects of the user’s situation. Brightkite has enumerated the current set of attributes that they use:

  • Location and place
  • Real world behavior
  • Time of day
  • Activity
  • Demographics
  • Language
  • Content and interests
  • Weather

The only thing missing, it seems, is friends, but they could easily fit into the “content and interests” category.

Now, as a user, if Brightkite is able to leverage all this information — presuming that I’ve provided them with accurate information — the ads in their app better be friggin’ awesome.

Indeed, Brightkite’s blog post on freebies (as in, “free beer”) suggests as much, and the example they provide shows that Brady (Brightkite co-founder), having checked into the Rackhouse Pub, has just been offered a free draft or well drink:

Location-targeted ads

Hard to argue with that. But this is where things get dicey, isn’t it?

Maybe I’m reading this image wrong, but since Brady’s already in the Rackhouse Pub, why would they want to give him a free beer? Unless Brightkite is underwriting such a promo (say, to counter Foursquare’s similar promos), Rackhouse Pub wants to get OTHER people in — not just give away drinks to their current patrons.

Of course there are countless ways to spin this — for better and worse.

Word of mouth for Rackhouse Pub could skyrocket, since people would virally spread the offer to their friends through social networks — amounting to a fairly cost-effective way to “acquire” new customers, especially if Rackhouse is able to recoup the costs of its giveaway on new dine-in guests.

But it could also backfire. For the price of a free downloadable iPhone app, countless single-drink seekers could take up Rackhouse on their offer and then leave, making for a costly marketing ploy with little upside.

Who knows. It all depends on how Brightkite “pushes” this kind of information to its users.

And Brightkite et al. aren’t alone in this space. Some companies are starting to leverage location and social networks in their own apps too. For instance, the 1.1 update to the Starbucks iPhone app adds Twitter, Facebook, and location-sharing features:

Starbucks 1.1 Features hosted by Ember

Now, with all these companies offering deals and incentives, I want a piece of the action! But I don’t want to be treated like some generic, disposable target. I want to be engaged with, and respected by, companies that want my business.

We have a long way to go to make this kind of engagement simpler, but longterm, I want to be the one who manages who does and doesn’t get the right to “target” me. I don’t want to opt-out — I want companies to request the privilege of showing up on my phone, in my activity stream, or in my inbox when I ask them to, at my convenience. I want to be able to put out a list of my desires and requirements, and then have companies bid for my business. And it’s fine with me if there’s a middleman broker in the middle that takes a cut, as long as I’m getting a better deal with better service than I would have otherwise.

Is that too much to ask?

Some months back, I wrote up a vision for what I call “connected commerce“, using Comixology as a preview of where I see this going, though that service is still far too manual, anti-social, and, critically, a bottleneck between me and my preferred retailer. This is a recipe for disaster, as Apple’s App Store continues to prove.

Attention brokers, like Brightkite, therefore, need to remember their place in this ecosystem: they need to first be the friend to and advocate of the individual (their customer), and second, to the advertiser or brand. Companies that don’t get this prioritization right will fail (and is why, in some respects, Facebook continues to change its platform rules while drawing the ire of developers, because, in order to keep their users, they must ultimately continue to make their environment a safer and more trustworthy space).

Doc Searls calls this consumer-driven leverage VRM or “vendor relationship management”. I’ve been a fan of the idea, but I think it falls down on the last word: management. Big companies are willing to devote thousands and millions of dollars “managing” their customers; individuals are not. But services like Brightkite and Facebook are beginning to change that by enabling us to leverage our real-time, real-world behavior as a gating apparatus, removing the “management” requirement of VRM, and allowing us to “flow with the go”. As we invite these attention brokers into our list of recipients to whom we release increasingly contextualized and precise information about ourselves, we stand to benefit a great deal. And privacy, then, becomes a rational, economic instrument that determines whether a company gets to serve us well (based on knowing us better) or clumsily (as they make presumptions about us through circumstance rather than intentional disclosure).

Implicitly, I am already benefiting from such opt-in vendor relationships. Through Twitter, I’ve “invited” several local vendors to send me real-time updates about their offerings to me via SMS, from Luna Park around the corner to Sightglass Coffee across town. They’ve earned my trust by not spamming me, instead offering actual value and insider information, treating me as a member of their esteemed coterie.

On the surface this model doesn’t appear to scale, but that’s just a failure of imagination. Scaling up is what the web does — if you know how to embrace it. By giving individuals more control over their experience and over the kinds of data that they can share, the need to “target” (in the military sense), recedes. Instead, opportunity emerges from being available, on-demand, and ubiquitous. Attention aggregators and identity providers can then broker relationships on behalf of their customers, and both parties will, ideally, end up with a better experience, and stronger, enduring relationships.

I hope Brightkite and Foursquare and the other location-based services keep this in mind. In as much as we let them broker our attention, they work for us — and not the other way around.

9 thoughts on “Don’t make me a target”

  1. That’s a tall order for a free website/app.

    Perhaps for apps who charge, the ads are opt-in. Or, like hulu, they let you choose the style you prefer.

    I’m happy to have well-targeted ads display to me. (NOT moms going back to college thankyouverymuchfacebook)

  2. Great post, I like where you’re taking these concepts. This is actually something I really don’t like about Amazon. Amazon suggest things for me to buy which have nothing to do with what I’m looking for, based on some assumption on my browsing history with their site. If Amazon first asked me “hey, we think you might be interested in this, are you?”, I wouldn’t be as disappointed, and maybe genuinely interested.

    Btw, have you used Gowalla? It’s a great create-and-go location-based game as well.

  3. Great post. What are you thoughts on the advertisers ability to scale? As you noted, the data is there (location, demographics, intention) but how can proctor and gamble use that information to make a toothpaste add interesting and relevant? Maybe they would have to infer that you are going on a date, sounds difficult to do 100 million times a day.

  4. Take a look at I think they are doing a lot of things right.

    – offers are made via standard graphic in the app (“special offer”) which a user can choose to look at (or not) (for stuff “nearby” when someone checks in

    – offers for the venue are shown after you have just checked into that venue – as a user I’m fine with this type of notice (the venue can customize the offer – on first check in, on fifth checkin, for mayors only etc)

    – foursquare seems to be moving to a data centric offer to businesses – not just “hey buy some ads” but “hey get a lot of data AND make some offers/ads that could drive new & repeat business)

    Unclear to me if Foursquare will reach critical mass (they seem to be growing but not as a crazy clip) but I do like where they are going a great deal.

  5. You raise a good point which is going to take quality thinking about the context for location based services or proximity communications. Also it’s important to remember that with a lot of services and the push for augmented reality (one more screen between us humans and reality) there will be an emergent issue of just being. The tools are subservient to us and not the other way round.

    A thoughtful post. I enjoyed it.

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  8. Hi Chris

    Thanks for sharing your review of BrightKite…must admit, haven’t really tried it as of yet…I use FourSquare…but will check it out.

    Cheers for now

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