Gowalla’s New Strategy: Embrace Enemies & Extend

Gowalla, the Austin, Texas-based developer of a location-based social networking app, has adopted a curious and bold strategy – embrace its archenemies and use them to extend its reach and utility. In the newly released version of its app (Gowalla 3), the company is allowing members to follow their friends on Facebook and Foursquare, two of its main competitors.

Josh Williams, co-founder and CEO of Gowalla, stopped by our office today to give me a brief look at the new application, which is currently available for the iPhone (s aapl) platform. “We want to give users a deeper, richer experience that takes them beyond just checking-in,” said Williams. “We have focused on easier, faster check-ins.”

Gowalla has about 600,000 members, but the number of active users is a subset of that total. It’s much smaller in size compared to Facebook Places and Foursquare (which is said to have over 3 million members). When asked if he was walking on the razor’s edge, Williams said he was hopeful that both Facebook and Foursquare would be supportive of Gowalla’s new direction, as it increases utility for other networks. (At the time of its launch, Facebook Places was syndicating check-ins from Gowalla, but not the other way around.)

Gowalla is making it easy for its members to check in to locations and share them with their friends on Foursquare and Facebook, in addition to Twitter and Tumblr. The company has made it possible by using open APIs. The new version of the software comes with a cool and addictive new feature called Notes, which allows you to leave notes for friends in different locations. Friends get a special note when they check in at a new location. The Notes feature has multiple uses, as described in the company’s press release:

By bringing photos inline to the Activity Feed, making the addition of new Spots (and flagging of duplicates) easier, and providing a Universal Activity Feed that shows check-ins from your friends on Gowalla, Facebook Places, Foursquare and Tumblr, we’re making Gowalla an easy-to-use social utility for discovering the everyday, and extraordinary, around you.

Gowalla 3 (initially on the iPhone platform only), also incorporates a completely new browsing experience for Friends and Photos, the option to bookmark your favorite spots for easy perusal and reference, and a smoother look and feel to the overall application. The Gowalla Passport has also been improved, with Photos, Trips, Items and Activity made even more accessible than previous versions.

With the ability to leave tips, uploading photos and now notes, Williams said Gowalla eventually wants become a socially curated guidebook for the world. In doing so, he said, the company is looking to differentiate itself from folks who want to make money by offering location-based coupons and deals. Instead, the company wants to build experiences — for business owners.

In addition, the company says it’s working on a set of tools that will allow business owners to build loyalty programs. For instance, the system could alert a business owner when a loyal customer checks in. This would make it easy for a manager to walk in, introduce himself and offer an on-the-spot discount or complimentary drink or something equivalent. (Related Post: Beyond the Check-In, the Era of Persistent Location Beckons.)

Gowalla’s embrace-and-extend strategy might be a good way for the company to get a boost in its usage, but the company still faces significant challenges, much like other location-based social networking services. As GigaOM Pro analyst David Card recently warned — these are early days for location-based marketing (subscription required).

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