Gowalla Tells a Story

11/01/2011 02:56 pm ET | Updated Jan 01, 2012

In the first quarter of 2011, a little over 100 million smartphones were sold around the world, meaning the odds of you having the ability to tap into one of the more popular location apps are pretty good. Location-based apps are social networks that allow users to check-in to a geographic hotspot - restaurant, gym, office, whatever - share where they are and often time receive some kind of reward (financial or social).

If you're one of those 100 million new users, welcome to the mobile social revolution. You'll find many companies to help you locate where you are, but most likely will wind up using one of the two industry powerhouses: Foursquare or Gowalla. But if you were to believe everything you read, you might not know about Gowalla, as it plays second-fiddle to Foursquare. But Gowalla is better suited as a mobile app to help you plan and most importantly, remember, your trips (local or away from home): from exploring your city (or where you're travelling) to getting recommendations from friends, Gowalla helps you tell the story of your travels.

Companies have story arcs. Not just the marketing/public relations/advertising narratives they create and control, but the ones that reality dictates. How customers and clients independently discuss a company is just as vital to a company's growth as the brand message. This is no different in the relatively new location-based service (LBS) industry, where the two frontrunners have each created their own storyline while letting its users create another one.

Foursquare and Gowalla have an intertwining introductory narrative. Both companies launched on the same day in March, 2009, after discovering the other only a few days prior. As Gowalla's director of business development, Andy Ellwood, said one morning in the bustling, sun-soaked Starbucks on Astor Place in New York City (which, incidentally, I found out through Gowalla's "Tips," is the largest Starbucks in the nation and third largest in the world), "From that moment, we're in the same sentence. Because for all intents and purposes, we both were trying to teach people an action which was not part of their every day self; which was bring location into the stories we tell."

Of course, we were already doing that via Facebook or text messages. Remember the "Where you at?" Boost Mobile commercials? But with location-based services, we can now create a network of our friends to keep tabs on where we at. Gowalla and Foursquare were at the forefront of this cottage industry.

Recently, however, due to a more public push from Foursquare, as well as its partnerships, revenue and increased user-base, the narrative has changed. Instead of articles and discussions that mention both Foursquare and Gowalla - similar to stories about the rivalries between Coke and Pepsi, McDonald's and Burger King, Home Depot and Lowes - the narrative has tilted away from Gowalla.

For the past several years, anytime a news story about location-based services popped up, it mentioned two main players: Foursquare and Gowalla. Now, as the mobile market begins to take its shape, the clear winner - in terms of revenue, users, awareness - has been Foursquare. Even the language we use, which is usually a good sign for a company when users adopt the company word-usage, is from Foursquare: the check-in. What happened with Gowalla?

To answer that is not a simple, "People don't use it" response. People do use Gowalla. As of August, more than 1.5 million of them. But what happened along the way appears to be more vision-based than anything else.

"The vision for what Foursquare set out to do and what Gowalla set out to are two different things," said Ellwood. "Only now there's an actual industry around it."

But it appears the industry - as well as the urban user -has adopted the Foursquare vision, putting Gowalla in a second-place position. Foursquare's notion of LBS, which can be found on their site and in discussion with its users, is about unlocking your city to discover cool venues, but more importantly (at least for Foursquare and its partners of merchants and brands) is to "leverage the Foursquare platform by utilizing a wide set of tools to obtain, engage, and retain customers and audiences." In other words, provide its 10.5 million users the opportunity to increase their social validation amongst their friends and to get rewards or discounts from the places where they check-in.

Gowalla, on the other hand, isn't as concerned about social validation or gamification or discounts. Gowalla is more interested in helping its users place importance on having the location tell a story.

"If you allow people to fully create and tell a better story, and have your location be the setting for that story," said Ellwood, "that's more value that goes above and beyond a pin or badge or giving a discount on your coffee. The social validation, which comes through by telling a better story, is something we see that triggers a better response. From my perspective, whether it's a tweet, a Facebook post, post on Tumblr or a check-in, the better the story, the more social validation I receive. Social validation is the currency that transcends gender. It transcends location. It even transcends nationality, because getting feedback from friends, like "Cool story" or "wish I was there" are the feeds we see a lot of."

New York City-based real estate company, Corcoran Group, has been using Gowalla for about two years, and they take this perspective to heart. While Corcoran uses multiple social networks and location-based services to engage with its key audiences (and does not have a business relationship with the Gowalla), Matthew Shadbolt, the company's Director of Interactive Product & Marketing , finds that when it comes to Gowalla, engagement runs high precisely because of this different value proposition.

Corcoran relies on Gowalla's photo-based check-ins to help people understand a deeper level of insight of a particular area. In other words, Corcoran uses Gowalla to tell a story in pictures.

"We do a lot more photo based type check-ins with Gowalla, and that's been a distinct difference," said Shadbolt. "We've started to use photos as a way of trying to help people understand that level of local insight."

He added, "As a heavy user of Gowalla, since we started to post these photos, that's when we started to tell a story. That's when we started to show more effectively what it's like to live here."

If Foursquare is about playing a game, collecting badges, while exploring your city, Shadbolt finds that Corcoran is able to tell a better story through Gowalla. "We see a lot more visibility of our tips in Foursquare, because of the number of different ways you can arrive at them. Gowalla's a little bit more limited. But it's probably more specific to what you're doing right now.

While Foursquare and Gowalla are the dominant location-base services, there are always two behemoths trying to nip at their heels: Google and Facebook. Interestingly, as Google and Facebook Places try to tap into their vast networks of data and people, both companies have given a boost to Gowalla. As if on cue, in late August, Facebook announced they were abandoning its Places on their mobile platforms, but left the window open to incorporate location-based services into its broader network.

"We saw huge spikes in signups after Facebook came in and validated something as cool," said Ellwood. "However, for Facebook it's a feature - it's not the platform. Gowalla's a platform."

And brands that use Gowalla, from Corcoran to Disney to mom and pop stores in rural America, each use the platform differently.

In September, Gowalla announced at the TechCrunch: Disrupt conference that they've changed the app and branding to reflect their inherent vision of storytelling.

Technically version 4.0, the new version bears little resemblance to the previous versions of the app. Gowalla is no longer predominantly a check-in service. That's still one aspect of it, but the idea is now to focus on two key areas: travel and storytelling.

When you load up Gowalla, the first thing you see is still a main activity feed. Here you'll find the activity from your friends. Because Gowalla isn't completely pivoting away from their core location functionality, much of the data and social connections remain intact. But instead of a stream of check-ins, you'll notice people hanging out together. They're checking-in, but they're also taking pictures and talking to one another in clusters that are known as "Stories".

The main middle tab is now "Guides". Here you'll find curated travel guides for various places around the world. For example, if you load up the app in San Francisco, you'll see the San Francisco guide, as well as the East Bay guide and the Stanford guide. You can quickly scroll through other guides not near you as well. And Gowalla has the ability to make special guides on the fly. For example, they made a TC Disrupt guide for event-goers.

Clicking on these guides loads up a bit of information about the city as well as all of the must-see spots. Again, because Gowalla has years worth of location data, they're able to easily populate robust guides. Some of the locations are curated, some are based on check-in data and people favoriting places. The Gowalla "Highlights" feature also plays a role here.

The final tab is your personal profile area. Here you'll find all of your pictures and all of your Stories.

As new mobile devices, as well as new location-based services, are created, how people tell their own personal stories will change. Will Gowalla be the place to tell your story? Time will tell.