Monday, March 22, 2010

Digital 'Dog Whistle'

More than once last week at the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, I'd be sitting in a restaurant or in a hotel lobby with some colleagues, only to see nearly everyone within eyeshot suddenly stand up and start moving toward the exits, simultaneously. We'd go, too, ending up a few blocks away, or across the street, along with everyone else.

What was fascinating was that this wasn't the usual conference "pack" mentality. Our smart phones had made sure we had "gotten the memo." They told us when to go and where to go -- and then, who else might be there when we arrived. For many attendees, the SxSW conference was a first opportunity to try out location-based services like Foursquare and Gowalla and experience the sensation of location-awareness media first-hand.

[New York Times writer David Carr described the sensation at SxSW, writing in the Times today that "it was striking to see the digital location effect in the wild, with people reacting to an unseen dog whistle and moving en masse, on command."]

How does it work? Once you arrive at a location, you "check in" and see a list of people who are already there; Foursquare was ranking the most popular locations by the number of check-ins during the conference. Local merchants were handing out digital, branded "badges" to those who showed up -- and free beer or other perks were being given to those who showed up the most often. Twitter launched a location-aware app during the conference and Facebook will soon follow suit.

Location, simply put, changes a lot -- from marketing to social action. [The potential to organize volunteers this way was explored again this year on some of SxSW's panels.] Merging location and the Web means that most of us can walk around with a smart phone in our pockets that not only tell others where we are but also plugs into the Net to share that information, merge it with online databases and spit out who else is in the immediate vicinity that we might know.

But location-aware services -- though still a relatively new form of social media -- are doing more now than simply testing organizers' ability to move a crowd for entertainment [see Where Ware in Cause Global last week]. They're also testing new ways for crowds to help charitable causes with donated money and services: following the Haiti earthquake, Loopt announced that for every user who checked in from a Panera, Chipotle or a Whole Foods, it would donate $1 towards Haitian relief, with 50 cents going to the Red Cross and the rest to Doctors Without Borders. Not to be outdone, Gowalla donated $50 to the Red Cross for every user who checked in from one of three locations in San Francisco at certain times.

CauseWorld, meanwhile, is a location-based social network that hands out "Karma Points" each time a user checks in at a participating location. The free iPhone and Android app lets users convert their Karma Points into real dollars and donate them to to a list of causes that corporate sponsors Kraft Foods and Citi have designated. The CauseWorld community has, so far, earned $6 million worth of Karma Points for the homeless in Haiti.

No question, there is more potential, still, for groups to use location aware technology to move groups to benefit social causes. Backers say CauseWorld is an example of how brands can combine social media with cause marketing in new ways to deliver new value to customers and employees, alike. No doubt CauseWorld is just the first of such initiatives.

Are you part of any new projects that use location-aware technology-for-a-cause? How would you rate the potential for location-aware media to promote social action? Employee and consumer engagement?

-- By Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by Matt Hertel for

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