Waze Builds Out Traffic Maps to Add Context in Location

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waze3cm2It remains a bit unclear whether social mapping app Waze will or will not sell to Facebook in the near future for as much as $1 billion. But either way, work goes on at the real-time mapping app that currently boasts 47 million users worldwide.

Andy Ellwood, the company’s senior director of business development, will be appearing on a panel at Street Fight Summit West in a couple of weeks in San Francisco to talk about how the future of mapping tech plays into hyperlocal marketing. Street Fight caught up with him recently to talk about how Waze makes money, the vitality of context, and fighting off Google.

How can you best describe the value Waze provides?
The easiest way to describe Waze, the way that I think of Waze, is that we have 47 million people who hate traffic. We have a really strong community. Everything about Waze is built by and for our audience. We joke that if traffic had a Facebook page, no one would like it. It unifies everyone around the world.

There is no one who likes traffic. That was the problem that we were going to solve when we first started. That accounts for a lot of the growth that we’ve had. We’re trying to be a pioneer in the mobile navigation space by helping people get from point A to point B based on current conditions. Just by using Waze, you are helping everyone around you. By driving with it open, you are helping people re-route in real time.

What’s the ceiling? Can you kill in-car navigation systems?
Everyone’s most valuable asset is their time. Our ultimate goal is that we want to save people five to 10 minutes a day. Extrapolate that over a year and that’s 30 hours a year, 30 waking hours that we’re giving back to people. The ceiling is that many people will appreciate that opportunity. That’s the way we’re thinking about it. People feel happier knowing that they might be outsmarting traffic in a way that other people are not.

As far as the functionality – whether it’s on tablets, phones, or at some point in the dash – there’s not a limit on that. It’s more about getting the service correct and continuing to serve the community.

You mention in-dash. Have there been talks about doing that?
We partnered with Pioneer and we were one of the app launch parties for them. If you got a radio from Pioneer with that system in place, you got a screen with a stream of what was on your phone. It’s definitely something that we are curious about and thinking about, but the number of in-dash opportunities right now is not huge. It’s the direction that things are going and we will continue to consider it, but we’re mobile-first. That’s where we see a lot of the value.

How are you making money? You have run campaigns with Dunkin’ Donuts, Wyndham Hotels, and others. Are you focusing on big brand partnerships or is there room for small businesses as well?
We started with big brands and had tremendous results. They started out with a small test or one metro, but then they turned it around and started with national campaigns. It was a good beta test for us.

We’re really starting to see a really big uptick in local venues. The big guys can afford to buy billboards and TV ads. What the smaller places want is to be able to let the guy who always drives down the same road every day know that if he drives one block over he can find their business. That’s our self-serve model. Brands can spend as little as $50 a month and get those impressions. They get, for lack of a better term, a “digital billboard” put on to the map.

And you’re seeing good uptake with that service?
Yeah. People are increasing their budgets for it. We see it as a value-add for our community, and the community is responding to it. We can tell stores how many people chose to navigate to them after seeing the interaction.

Google Maps is reportedly launching a feature that is Waze-like. Are you worried about bigger companies stepping into the space?
It’s always fun when one of these companies with unlimited resources and a lot of very smart people come in. We’re a pretty small team, with just over 100 people in the entire company. We’re lean, but we’re mighty. It allows us to be pretty nimble so we can continue to perfect and adapt. At the minimum, we are a service, but for us what’s valuable is the community. The community cannot be replicated just by announcing a new features.

What’s next? Are you rolling out any new features?
We’re always pushing for things that add even more value. “Location” is the new “search” — and context is such a big deal. I think we’re going to continue to roll out features that focus on those things. When we present you with a local ad or activation, it’s always in context to your current route, not just your location. If you were to search for a gas station, a traditional map would put a mark where you were and it would show you all the gas stations around. With Waze, we show you all gas stations between where you are and where you are going. We’ll show you things that are relevant to where you are headed. We’ll continue to get smarter about that as we go.

Noah Davis is a senior editor at Street Fight.