The New Proximity: A Second Phase in Mobile Brings Here and Now to Life

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A couple of years back when a new social network called Ello briefly caught the public’s attention, I wrote about the need for digital marketers to stay focused on a coherent strategy, aimed at sites and platforms with established reach and proven value, rather than chasing the latest fad and diluting the effectiveness of their efforts. I’d still argue that the strategy is correct in cases like Ello, where early reports overinflate an untested potential, and even in cases where a lot of hype surrounds a new release from an established player, as with Google Glass. Go where the audience actually is and don’t let yourself be distracted by mere publicity. Our ability to focus effectively on multiple fronts has a hard limit, as does the attention span of the consumer audience.

Well, there are fads and there are fads. First Snapchat and now Pokémon Go have proven that the opposite can also be true: some trends catch us by surprise and become incontestable marketing opportunities before our eyes. In these cases, flexibility and a willingness to experiment are the qualities that earn dividends. Within days of the release of Pokémon Go, articles had already appeared showing business that with a few simple and inexpensive steps, they could start attracting players to their stores.

There are limitations: the easiest and most effective marketing is done by those whose store locations already happen to be PokéStops or Gyms in the game. But the essence of the game and the reason so many are talking about its potential is that creates or implies endless opportunities for location awareness and augmented reality as components in communication. Just because your store’s not a PokéStop doesn’t mean there aren’t creative ways to promote yourself; all of its geographical touchpoints are places where players will likely converge, so if you can’t bring them to you, you can go to them.

But I think there’s a shift underway that extends beyond Pokémon Go, something that speaks to the tipping point in augmented reality that the game seems to represent. We’ve been talking for a few years now about the transition to mobile and what it means, usually bringing up the same points: mobile devices make the internet ubiquitous and available wherever you are; they’re inherently location-aware; they create a state of permanent connectedness that enables greater volumes and different types of social contact.

In a word, mobile is about proximity, both in time and in space. What happens at a restaurant when an argument breaks out about some esoteric fact? We go to our phones, because the phone brings questions and answers into immediate proximity. Proximity of desire to fulfillment is everywhere in mobile communication; no sooner do I think of texting my friend or buying something on Amazon than the act is complete.

As for proximity in space, because we carry mobile tracking devices wherever we go, we are transformed into points on a map that bear a relationship with other points. Finding the closest gas station is about establishing proximity between those points. The phone as a medium is so predominantly location and proximity based that Google feels safe in assuming the majority of search queries on mobile have some kind of local intent.

To a great degree, though, the first phase of mobile software has relied on us to express a desire and thereby to enable a service. Our actions initiated services that capitalized on the phone’s ability to maximize proximity. We chose when and whether to search, text, or play.

I think that’s changing, and that we’re entering a second phase of mobile where for many of us, connectivity and location awareness will be active for longer stretches of our days. In the early days of Foursquare, you had to think about using the app whenever you entered a venue; now, I have Foursquare notifications enabled on my phone, and every time I get near a place Foursquare thinks I might be interested in, the app tells me what to look for and shows me tips other users have left.

Think of Snapchat. According to the company, “On any given day, Snapchat reaches 41% of all 18 to 34 year olds in the United States.” For many of these users, it’s a constant presence throughout the day, with snaps going back and forth between friends capturing a stream of passing moments and thoughts. Filters and Lenses in Snapchat are, not so unlike Pokémon Go, a form of augmented reality, collapsing the boundary between the world and the app. The very ephemerality of snaps brings them closer to removing the gap between desire and fulfillment leading to the next desire than anything outside of real life.

And Snapchat is extremely location aware, though that fact may not always be apparent. The increasing popularity of GeoFilters, triggered when you’re in a certain town or at a certain location, shows that Snapchat is paying close attention to where its users are in space. Again, for digital marketers, sponsored GeoFilters should be something of a no brainer. They’re easy to set up and tap into a huge audience already using the app all around you – because the other fact about proximity is that mobile trends, when they take off, are happening in your vicinity whether you leverage them or not.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi.