Facebook (re)Places: What it means for Foursquare and Gowalla

Yesterday Facebook announced its much anticipated entry into the location based services. Unlike Google Places which is a search tool, Facebook Places is a check-in service focused on social interaction. You simply use your phone to tell people where you are, who you are with and find out others nearby. This then can also be broadcast on their Facebook page.

The integration of a check-in service to the already dominant roster of services that Facebook offers is a boon for users and further solidifies Facebook’s hold on its community and their interaction (not to mention social supremacy over Google). Yes, it raises privacy issues (again), especially when a friend checks-in for you without your permission, but my focus is what it means form the (former) leaders in the marketplace, Foursquare and Gowalla.

From a branding pointing of view, there is one place that Foursquare and Gowalla do not want to be – in Facebook’s shadow. While Holger Luedorf of Foursquare claimed that Facebook’s entry into the space validated the market, and Chris Cox of Facebook attested to the power of location-based tools when married to the memories stored on Facebook, there is little doubt that this is the long goodbye for any other player in the field.

Yes, Foursquare or Gowalla did a stellar job of defining and carving out the marketplace. Along with Yelp and Booyah, they even came to an agreement with Facebook that you’ll be able to check-in and publish data to your Facebook feed. But the writing is on the wall for all of them and here’s why.

Leaving aside the vast advantage in numbers that Facebook holds, none of the other players created a unique offering or distinct brand personality. It’s that personality that engenders brand loyalty and forces late comers like Facebook to the field to fight for supremacy. But as it stands, Foursquare and Gowalla simply offer similar products and services without the added benefits of Facebook.

This serves as a sobering reminder that social media tools are not an end in themselves. They are best characterized as technology in the service of day-trading in social emotion. Technology companies must establish themselves as clearly defined brands with compelling personalities and voices to take root within the social ecosystem. It’s the difference between someone ‘using’ Foursquare and ‘loving’ Foursquare. Or, at least, feeling sad as we say goodbye.

Do you agree Foursquare and Gowalla were faceless? Or do you think they will survive?