Geo-marketing and building mobile, interactive maps for businesses

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South Africa has a highly sophisticated and economically critical hospitality industry, first-world levels of mobile phone penetration and world-beating cell phone services such as for banking and social media. And yet very few businesses have websites that work properly on a cell phone or even maps that show their location, despite the fact that both are easy to do and, in the case of maps, free. If we don’t make it easy for people to find us, how do we expect to prosper?

In 2012 over half of all new internet sessions in South Africa will come from a cell phone and in 2013 smartphone sales will outstrip both other computer sales and ‘normal’ cell phones sales. Smartphones (and their larger brothers, tablets such as the iPad) are genetically closer to computers than the old ‘dumb’ phones we’ve got used to – they can do most the things your PC can such as browse the internet, download media and build documents. Indeed, in some cases, they can do much more. For example they are ‘geo-located’, which means they have their own GPS signal which means their location can be known to the nearest meter.

Geo-location opens up many new possibilities for marketers (as well as concerns about privacy) to target messages based upon specific locations (“30% discount today only at Clicks, 4th shop ahead on the right”). Recent start ups such as Foursquare and Groupon are industry leaders in ‘geo-marketing’, but increasingly the other social media big boys are playing in this space to – Facebook’s ‘check in’ feature for example -  enable them to know where you are, build a profile of you and therefore target their marketing better. But the one to watch in this space is Google.

Google’s strategy seems to be, as it is in the internet search space, to ‘own’ how people search, see and explore this virtual world. If you can control the tools people use to view the world, you are pretty well positioned to make money off selling relevant products to them. Think about how people now plan their holidays – using online maps to build itineraries and Google Earth to check out locations. The good news for us as small business owners is that in their efforts to get people to use their maps as the platform for this process, Google have created many free tools to build maps and apps, as well as to get listed on their maps (Google Places).

But South Africa has been slow to catch on to use these free tools to get themselves mapped so potential customers can physically (e.g. get directions to their door) and virtually (e.g. achieve prominence on a Google Map and showcase location) find them. One reason is that to build a Google Map does require a small amount of technical knowledge to copy and paste html code. That usually requires paying your webmaster, so they end up not being free after all.

However there are ‘freeware’ companies (such as that offer free tools to build your own Google map very quickly and that require no technical knowledge at all. In fact these maps are one step better than the normal Google Maps because they are geo-located (so customers can see how close they are to you and get directions), work on a cell and allow you to include contact details and photos.

High internet connectivity costs, unreliable service and a limited pool of people with technical skills have all combined to leave South Africa a bit behind in the internet revolution. But, ironically partly because of the above reasons, as well as high cell penetration and the development of free tools to overcome these issues South African business owners actually have a wonderful opportunity to leapfrog in to the bright new world of geo-marketing.

Blog posted from Randburg View larger map
New Kruger Park phone app to help you find and share game sightings on a map of Kruger: