Discovery's TLC Channel Sets Its Sights on Location Marketing

Marketers explore interacting with customers in a hyperlocal way on sites like Foursquare.

As mobile grows as a valuable customer interaction channel, some marketers are beginning to explore ways to connect to customers in a hyperlocal way. Social location sharing (SLS) websites like Foursquare, Yelp, Gowalla, and Loopt, for example, are designed to allow users to "announce" where they are via mobile or gain access to information based on their mobile phone's location. These sites facilitate a real-time, one-to-one connection among consumers, and have started inviting marketers to the party.

"Mobile platforms allow consumers to be in control of connectivity, when and where they want to engage," says Rose Stark, director of marketing strategy at cable channel TLC, which is adopting SLS as part of its customer interaction strategy. "Because of this, it is important for brands to meet consumers where they are gathering. This should be a part of the overall media mix, because we cannot always wait for them to consume our brand message through traditional channels, such as a TV spot or print ad."

Foursquare, for example, combines friend-finder and social city-guide elements with a loyalty points system. "Users earn points, win Mayorships, and unlock badges for trying new places and revisiting old favorites," its site says. Foursquare encourages businesses to offer discounts and prizes to customers when they check in to Foursquare from that business. The site provides tracking tools and analytics for businesses to monitor customer activity, as well. The site has grown to about 2 million users since its launch in 2008. It's most popular among retailers, travel and tourism, and the fashion industry. Businesses such as Sports Authority, Starbucks, Kate Spade, Coach, Pepsi, and even Connecticut's Darien Library offer specials for customers and patrons "checking in."

TLC celebrates summer on foursquare
TLC, part of Discovery Communications, has been using social media tools for a number of years. The site recently began using Foursquare as part of its "TLC Summer" campaign. Consumers can officially check-in to earn badges related to TLC shows DC Cupcakes, BBQ Pitmasters, and Cake Boss that will appear on their profiles. "While we kicked off the campaign by tagging summer hot spots [such as Georgetown Cupcake, where one show is filmed], our fans on Facebook and Twitter have played an active role in the campaign by suggesting locations that they love, to expand upon our picks," Stark says. A recent fan post on TLC's Facebook page suggested that badges be earned at Yummy Cupcakes in Burbank, CA. "As a result, Foursquare users are deepening their connection with our brand while sharing their finds with each other."

The goal of the initiative is to "gauge our fans' interest in location-based services, with an eye towards future opportunities," Stark says. So far, she says fan participation has exceeded expectations. "From the start, we sought to make our efforts relevant and exciting for fans, which we achieved by involving them in identifying locations that define TLC Summer. Additionally, it was important to provide a direct link to our programming and our brand. In a crowded space, we'll always have to compete with other brands that are trying to get their message out there and encourage their consumers to join them on Foursquare. However, there is more room to be noticed now than there will be in, say, six months."

She adds that customer engagement is another important element of the project. "Our goal is to continue to offer value beyond TLC Summer and to keep them interested and engaged with our brand. This campaign will act as solid foundation for future collaborations with Foursquare across our brands. It's a natural evolution of social media, and [companies] should take advantage of it. It is also nice to offer your fans something they can engage with on their terms."

TLC is one of a handful of companies dipping their toe in the location marketing water. "It is still nascent among marketers," says Simon Salt, CEO of Incslingers and author of the upcoming book, Social Location Marketing. "Most are still struggling with making sense of Twitter, Facebook, and blogs let alone social location marketing. That said, those that are starting to use it are seeing results straightaway and are expanding what they are doing."

SLS data represents the ultimate in social CRM, Salt says, by providing foot traffic data that would otherwise be costly to obtain. "What this can provide marketers, especially for those with multiple sites in different geographic locations, is an overview of what works well in different markets and where their traffic is. This enables big brands to act as though they were a very local store." And for customers, the discounts and specials are appealing, but also the recognition of patronage is a welcome bonus.

Unproven ground
With marketing budgets tight and pressure high to show results, however, many companies may not be willing to experiment with this emerging channel. Foursquare has about 2 million users, compared to Facebook's 400 million and Twitter's 100 million. "There is more scale with sites like Facebook, Yahoo, Google, and Twitter," says Aaron Strout, chief marketing officer at social media agency Powered. "It's getting in the way of smaller experiments." But social location sites are beginning to integrate with the larger sites, he says, allowing users to "share" on Facebook when they check in on Foursquare, for example.

In addition, many companies are still trying to get their basic social strategy in order, and are wary of jumping on the latest fad bandwagon. Strout says there is some awareness among digital and social marketing professionals, but it's still the early days and not a priority for most CMOs.

Location marketing may be gaining buzz, and many are on the lookout for the next marketing game-changer, but it's not for everyone. "The space will develop for those markets that it is relevant and not for those that it isn't," Salt says. He advises companies to know their customer base well before determining if social location marketing is appropriate. "Don't feel that because there is 'buzz' you have to use a certain tool set. If it isn't relevant to your customers there is no point inusing it. Social media is not a 'build it and they will come' environment. While it can be and should be used for brand awareness, it is essential to know where your existing customers are before commencing a social location marketing strategy."