NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Facebook will start allowing users to share their location in status updates, a move that extends the world's largest social network into the physical world, as soon as late May.
The feature will allow Facebook's users, who number nearly a half billion, to automatically share their location along with what they're doing. Marketers, which have taken a keen interest in both Facebook and geo-targeted marketing, will be integrated into the system sometime after.
Ad Age reported Thursday that McDonald's will allow users to share their location when they update their status at the chain's restaurants. People familiar with the project believed McDonald's would be among the first marketers to use the platform, and that McDonald's would be part of the consumer launch. The chain and digital agency Tribal DDB Chicago declined to discuss its plans.
But an executive familiar with Facebook's plans today said McDonald's will be one of many marketers in on the ground floor and will be integrated into the platform sometime after Facebook turns on the feature for consumers.
Marketers such as Pepsi, Starbucks, Bravo and MTV have all experimented with location-based social networks, but mass marketers in general have been stymied by the lack of scale with services such as Foursquare, Loopt, Gowalla and MyTown. The biggest of the four, Loopt, has only 3.5 million users, while MyTown has 2 million, Foursquare 1 million and Gowalla less than that.
"Facebook is adding a million users a day -- they are the only ones who could turn on location-based social marketing at scale for large companies," said Mike Lazerow, CEO of Buddy Media, which builds social applications for brands.
Facebook's new functionality could make checking in at a location as natural as status updates are now for hundreds of millions of Facebook users. While those are numbers that start to matter for mass marketers, the greatest impact of Facebook's new functionality could be for local businesses.
"This will be the biggest thing to happen to local businesses since paid search," said Ian Schafer, CEO of DeepFocus, which launched its own specialty practice to address the market, GEOFocus. "It's a tremendous opportunity to use digital to move people physically."
Facebook declined to give additional details on its plans. "We have been working on a location feature for a while but don't have immediate plans to announce anything," the company said. "We may consider working with marketers to enhance the experience in the future, but have no plans to so do at launch."
It seems likely that the new location-based status updates will be opt-in for users of Facebook's mobile app, which is actively used to access the network by more than 100 million Facebook users. That's a key distinction for some of Facebook's more vocal critics, who recently argued that Facebook's new Open Graph initiative should have been opt-in rather than added automatically for all users.
Open Graph extends Facebook's social connections to third-party sites so that user activities there are visible to a users' friends within Facebook.
Facebook's critics further complain that it has become too complex for users to understand and control which of their activities are shared and which are private. Adding location to status updates is is another powerful feature, but also uses information that most people aren't accustomed to sharing.
Ian Wolfman, CMO of social media agency IMC2, advised consumers to take a look at PleaseRobMe.com, and give serious thoughts to their privacy when they post their location. All the same, he added, the new link between digital and physical worlds will change not only how consumers behave online but how they behave in person. If you know a friend is having a doughnut down the street, you might stop and join them.
Despite any misgivings over privacy, marketers are eager to leverage social connections to drive foot traffic and sales in real-world stores.
"We're always looking for the next big thing that isn't just a passing fad, but a viable wave in consumer behavior," said Chris Fuller, emerging media director at Pizza Hut, which built an ordering platform on Facebook in 2008. "Geolocation services appear to be just that, which is why it's a top priority for us."