[By Gill Moodie] There’s a fascinating thing happening underground. If you’re over 35 you definitely won’t have heard of it. If you haven’t a clue how you surf the Net on your phone you won’t care. But if you’re a media player you really need to know.
With little fanfare, Vodacom has been growing a location-based social network called The Grid.
It’s very clever so pay attention (particularly the over 35s). Here’s the science bit: using the triangulation of cellphone towers, The Grid pinpoints members’ locations on a map. Just like Facebook or Twitter, you can send messages, chat, hook up with friends, and upload pictures and video. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, The Grid is designed for your cellphone (though you can access it on the Web) and it’s not limited to Vodacom subscribers.
Because you’re all located on a map, you can do fun things like see where your buddies are — is anyone close to the coffee shop you’re at? — or you can view all the messages, called “blips” on The Grid, written about a restaurant or a club, say.
If this all sounds a tad gimmicky, think for a moment about the potential for advertising. If you’re a pub and you want to market your happy hour, why waste money on a newspaper or website ad that will be seen by people who live miles from your establishment. Something like The Grid could deliver your advert to punters within, say, a 20km radius. It could prove cheaper and more effective.
Of course, The Grid is not reinventing the wheel. MXit, now part-owned by Naspers, got kids talking and networking on their cellphones. And, of course, the omniscient Google is offering Latitude with some geo-located fun up its sleeve, though not too many South Africans are using it yet.
So The Grid might just beat Google to the bank given that it already has more than 1m signed up users in SA.
And traditional media better pay attention.
The ever-splintering advertising pie means that all traditional media houses have seen their revenues impacted, sure.
But when a big company like Vodacom steps into the media fray, it’s time to sit up and take note. Not least because The Grid is being run by a respected new media guy called Vincent Maher, who has worked at the Mail & Guardian Online and was co-founder of blog aggregator Amatomu.
Social networks typically take quite a while to build critical mass, which is why The Grid is still under the radar. But if you’re big and monied like Vodacom, you can afford to wait, and once it starts cooking, Vodacom can market The Grid in a heartbeat and very cheaply to its millions of subscribers.
The Grid is even experimenting with gauging and mapping the moods of its users so that it can offer seriously targeted advertising. For example, as Maher explains on his blog: “Just before lunch, show my ad to women within 10km of Fourways Mall, between the age of 25 and 30, who are feeling sad, sleepy, angry or irritated”.
I say kudos to Vodacom for a bold step out of the box. And, to the old-school media, it’s time to put on your thinking caps and find out how you can ride this wave.
I’ve heard mobile gurus say that the problem with mobile news strategies is that, unlike newsprint and the Net, the media houses don’t own or control the medium so have to cosy up to the cellphone operators. Well, looks like Vodacom just figured out how to deliver content on its own — and they don’t even have the hassle or the expense of creating it. Their users will do it for them. In the parlance of Generation Y, I think that’s what you call “pimpin’ ”.
I can hear the conspiracy theorists getting jumpy about Big Brother but, really, if you don’t want to be located, don’t sign up. If voracious aliens land on Earth and hack into Vodacom’s files at least they’ll know how we feel about it: angry, irritated, murderous, petrified.
- Moodie, a freelance journalists, is editor of Grubstreet. She has posted a Q&A with Maher about The Grid on her website