Innovation Amid Commoditization: A Conversation With Gowalla
Fresh off the launch of Facebook Places, I had the chance last week to talk to Gowalla Director of Business Development Andy Ellwood. We both spoke at July’s Geo-Loco conference and have since been reeling from the activity and excitement in the mobile/local/social space.
The biggest recent news in this space has of course been Facebook Places and we spoke about how that positions Gowalla. With this launch, Ellwood maintains the same philosophy Gowalla has espoused since the beginning: differentiate using branding, design and unique features.
This is particularly salient as mobile local check-in services come out of the woodwork and the check-in itself gets integrated with existing services like Yelp and WHERE. The check-in has long flirted with commoditization and Ellwood agrees that Facebook Places has made it official.
The Dreaded ‘K’ Word
But instead of viewing it as a “_____ killer” (insert Foursquare, Gowalla, Loopt, Yelp, etc.), Facebook could help smaller players that are fighting for mainstream penetration. In other words, as we’ve argued, its entrance to the space pushes the idea of “checking in” to half a billion users.
In that sense, Ellwood sees Places as more of a platform and content aggregator than the hyped “K” word. Gowalla has already taken advantage of both “read” and “write” APIs to pull in and push out check-ins to Facebook.
“There are a lot of check-in services and Facebook is a platform on which to publish that information,” said Ellwood. “A check-in is just saying ‘I want to engage and here’s where I am.’ Our job is to build more engagement and interaction around that.”
In that sense, it just launched Highlights, which joins the Comments, Photos and Trips features that have come to define the product. Gowalla has also long differentiated itself with top-notch design and a fun interface — certainly more so than the spartan Facebook Places.
As for the perennial challenge of attracting advertisers, the company is working with brands to create custom campaigns that give them “credit” for users’ activity or local discovery on Gowalla.
Like Foursquare, this can involve sponsored rewards (pins in this case), places or events. The challenge, and the fun part says Ellwood, is the lack of pricing standardization that in turn requires each campaign to be customized based on advertisers’ goals.
“We don’t have a pricing sheet because we have so many different ways to combine the features of Gowalla to meet our partners objectives,” he said. Eventually there could be more scalable automation and standardization as Gowalla works with advertisers, gaining best practices to apply to others.
Meanwhile, it’s moving down market. Like others we’ve covered in this budding space, Gowalla has mostly worked with large advertisers. But a longer term opportunity could be the massive (but challenging) SMB segment where location is a clear relevance trigger.
“We’re interested in doing something in that market, probably sooner rather than later,” said Ellwood. “It’s just a matter of coming up with the right way to do it.”