There’s a new online trend in town and it’s great news for small, bricks-and-mortar businesses.

People are using location-based services, geo-tagging, and local search to find local businesses online and build community at street level through their mobile phones. Led by Foursquare, Facebook, Twitter, and the latest Google Maps Android application, among other sites, are also capitalising on this trend.

How geo-tagging works

Geo-tagging is exploiting on the increasing use of ‘smart phones’, mobile phones with internet access, using their inbuilt GPS technology.

Imagine you have only a handful of people booked into a yoga class. You advertise a special offer through location-based services like Foursquare and Gowalla to people close enough to take advantage of it. You can reward your most loyal clients and let them promote your business.

Or, as a client approaches your wellness centre, they ‘check in’ via Facebook or add a geo-tag to their Tweet about going for a massage.

Getting started with Foursquare

Foursquare for Business helps business owners run specials and create loyalty programs, with supporting statistics and marketing materials … for free. It asks only that business owners limit themselves to places where people tend to gather.

Business owners need just internet access and time to get started with Foursquare, although customers require a smart phone such as an iPhone or BlackBerry to access it.

Once the smart phone user has downloaded the Foursquare application, they login (once only if they prefer), connect their Facebook and Twitter accounts to find friends, and let friends know where they are by ‘checking-in’ to a venue. They can see where their friends are, learn what nearby businesses are registered, and what rewards or specials each business offers Foursquare users who check in.

Incentives go beyond discounts; users collect points for checking-in and prize ‘badges’ for total number of check-ins, repeated check-ins and frequent check-ins to many places in a single night, etc. You can even become ‘Mayor’ or ‘Super Mayor’ of venues for frequent patronage. Foursquare gathered 275,000 users in its first year of operation.

Letting your clients promote you

This latest evolution of social media built on the increased ownership and use of smart phones makes the internet more useful to small business than ever before. And it’s not just a young person’s phenomenon – AdMob Mobile Metrics January 2010 report found that smart phones users are split evenly across age groups. Clients may already be checking in to your business through various sites without you realising it.

Instead of competing in the world wide web global marketplace, small business owners can use geo-tagging, local search, and location-based services to help promote their business and make meaningful online connections with their local community.