Foursquare for the Real World? ShopAlerts: a Geo-Fenced Mobile Promotions Service

Fresh on the heels of yesterday’s launch of location-based mobile discounts app Shopkick, yet another geo-targeted mobile shopping service prepares its own take on mobile couponing and promotions. But don’t worry – you can breathe a sigh of relief – it’s not yet another iPhone app to download.

Instead, the new “ShopAlerts” service is actually a white-label platform that allows retailers and other businesses to send location-triggered mobile text messages to consumers who’ve opted in to receive them.

Yes, geo-fenced, geo-targeted mobile couponing, discounts and promotions have arrived.

Opt-in, Geo-Fenced Alerts

A “geo-fence” is a term which refers to a virtual perimeter around a geographical region. For example, geo-fencing technologies are used in certain child location services to notify parents when the child leaves a certain pre-designated area, such as their school or home.

In mobile location-based shopping services, such as the recently arrived ShopAlerts platform (it launched earlier this spring), geo-fences are used around each retail store in order to trigger the mobile alerts the service sends.

When a customer is within range of that store, a (relatively) accurate calculation based on neighborhood-level cell tower data, the alert is sent out via an SMS text message. The inability of smartphone-grade GPS to determine a precise location is actually used to the service’s advantage. “ShopAlerts brings consumers into [retailers’] stores when they are in the neighborhood rather than engaging with the consumer once they are inside the store,” explains Blair Swedeen, VP Market Development at platform creator Placecast, which is launching the service in partnership with location provider Location Labs.

But that’s just one of the many differentiating factors between ShopAlerts and the new Shopkick mobile app. ShopAlerts also doesn’t require special hardware installed inside the stores, as Shopkick does, nor does it require a specific mobile app installed on a specific brand of smartphone or smartphones.

Instead, shoppers opt-in to a retailer’s mobile alerting system, a service marketed however the retailer sees fit. (Think Twitter updates, Facebook posts, websites, or even in-store signage). Once a consumer opts-in to receive alerts, they’ll be notified with news of sales, promotions or other messages the retailer wants to send, but only when they’re near the store.

That last part is the key difference between this and other mobile text-messaging based services. Although ShopAlerts won’t necessarily know you’re at Macy’s or Best Buy specifically, as Shopkick does, it could see that you’re at the mall shopping and alert you then. And because it’s a “set-it-and-forget it” type of service, you don’t have to remember to break out your phone, launch an app, check-in or scan barcodes. You would just get a text.

Not as Sexy as Foursquare, but Potentially More Useful?

ShopAlerts may not have the “geek chic” feel or the media hype that accompanies today’s ever-growing list of location-based mobile services (Shopkick, Foursquare, Gowalla, MyTown, Brightkite, Whrrl, Loopt, WeReward, TopGuest, Hot Potato, SCVNGR, AroundMe, Poynt, Geodelic, and whew…who have we forgotten?), but that’s OK with them.

After all, research from the Placecast-commissioned Harris Interactive study on mobile behavior showed that only 7% of men and 4% of women were currently using location-based “check-in” apps like those. 40%, however, were avid text message users. Lest you think the research is somehow tainted by Placecast’s obvious conflict in interest, it’s notable that the findings back up Forrester’s earlier discovery that only 4% of U.S. online adults use location-based mobile check-in apps.

While both research companies acknowledged the hype surrounding the services, which may end up leading to real-world successes in the future, they’re still very cutting edge, unknown entities to most of the mainstream mobile audience.

The ShopAlerts platform is noting today their partnership with clothing brand The North Face on board and more brands “signing on monthly.”

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