Cafe Cofee Day has listed itself as a business officially on Foursquare and has started offering Foursquare Specials including discounts and free coffee on subsequent check-ins across its outlets in Bangalore, according to TechKnots. This, and the fact that Facebook appears to be rolling out Facebook Places in India  (according to The Next Web; hasn’t worked for us on iPhone and Android devices), might signal the arrival of check-in apps and of an eco system revolving around them.

More than just another social networking activity, integrating Check-in apps, which are essentially location based services and local businesses, opens up other prospects for users as well as for establishments. For businesses, it could be a less expensive and interesting marketing proposition to push brand loyalty, driving repeat usage and viral promotion by word of mouth.

The Location Ecosystem: FourSquare, Latitude & Facebook

Foursquare implemented location check-ins in 2009, and had this whole concept of points and badges, creating a leader board game like system for users on a social platform. It signed up businesses to offer actual rewards in form of discounts, priority service, reserved parking and other loyalty programs to users who check-in to their venues. It even lets brands that don’t have a physical presence like a TV channel or a magazine offer rewards, tips and co-branded badges.

Google launched its Latitude service way back in 2009, which enabled people to share their location with their online friends, bringing a social element into its navigation service. It recently introduced the check-in feature similar to Foursquare, on Android phones, connecting a real place to a location on Google maps.  In addition to giving Foursquare-like badges to users, it has integrated this feature with its existing Places and Navigation apps to enable users to get more information or find directions to the place. What’s interesting about this, is that Google has a recommendation engine called Hotpot, which lets users review and rate places; while businesses can list themselves for free on Places, Google has also introduced Boost in the US, a location based advertising service for local businesses. So Google has inter-connected location, social and search services in addition to location based advertising.

Facebook Places lets users check-in to a place, update their status, share it with their friends and even check-in other accompanying users with them. Business establishments can claim their Place on Facebook to get listed and even create fan pages and a wall for interactivity, when users check-in. It also incorporates ‘Deals’ letting businesses offer individual, recommendation, charity and loyalty deals. Which means that a particular establishment can offer discounts to individuals, on recommendations or repeat visits or donate on the customer’s behalf whenever they check-in. Deals are currently only available in the U.S, the UK, Germany, Spain, France, Italy and Canada.

Other popular location check-in services include Gowalla and Yelp. While Yelp focuses more on restaurants, Gowalla is more like Foursquare with focus on social gaming.

A few observations:

– Scale: None of these services has, as yet, achieved substantial scale in India, so location based advertising isn’t quite there yet.
– Privacy Settings: All these applications have privacy controls, but there’s a tendency, with social network integration for users to disclose their location; that’s risky.
– Check-in status messages on Social Networks are Irritating: So who else is blocking their friends for linking their Twitter accounts with Foursquare and filling the timeline with check-in messages?
– Advertising Context: While local advertising is a huge possibility with these services, it has to be in context with user preferences and tastes and not just because one is at a particular location. For example, a teenager would like to see a fast food joint or a cafe deal over a Club membership discount.
– Yellow Pages: Location can be used as a tool for a local listings directory to display results according to the user’s location. Yes preference can be given to paid listings but not over riding context. Don’t give me a Nokia dealer’s number when I search for an Apple store, just because he pays you more.
-Loyalty Programs: While its easy for big coffee chains and retail stores to incorporate check-in based programs, it would be interesting to see if the un-organised sector, including the next door Kirana store, or a local student-friendly tea shop, or even a garment store or restaurant adopts the location deals concept.