Brightkite: 2 Million Users And A Lot Of Local Promo Interest

Yesterday, I wrote that location was going to be this year’s Twitter at SXSW. Today, my inbox exploded.

It seems that just about every company, advertiser, and even plenty of users associated with the location space emailed me with pitches, ideas, thoughts, etc. To say that space is red-hot right now, is putting it mildly. One of the companies that reached out to me was Brightkite, one of the earliest hot location players.

CMO and co-founder Rob Lawson admits that the network has been “pretty quiet for a while,” but hints at some exciting stuff coming up for March (yes, around the time of SXSW). But he also wanted to share some things they’re working on right now, and a few interesting bits of data.

Notably, Brightkite has over 2 million active users currently around the world. While that might seem small compared to the bigger social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that’s actually four times the size of the newer rival Foursquare, that is getting much of the hype these days. Another interesting tidbit: Brightkite has had localized promotions in place for some time now, and they’re seeing strong usage.

What users of Foursquare may know as check-in or mayor special, Brightkite calls Local Promotions. And they have a page on the site where local businesses can sign up for free. On that page, they note:

We would love to help your bar, cafe, coffee shop, or business reach out to the local community through local promotions. We’ll let nearby Brightkite folk know your business gives them preferential treatment, and that they should stop in for a visit. Fill out the form below to get started.

Brightkite says these promotions are seeing a lot of interest from all types of brands. And usage is strong with over 100 brands including big ones like Gap, Ben & Jerry’s and Time Warner Cable, seeing over two percent response rates when these notifications are inserted into users stream. And the best ones are seeing five to ten percent. When compared to more traditional ads, those numbers are very solid.

Like Foursquare check-in and mayor specials, the Brightkite deals offer things like free (or heavily discounted) drinks and meals, but also extend to things like discounted hotel rooms, car rentals, and even dry cleaning.

So is Brightkite making any money off of these? Yes. While many of the smaller local businesses use the service for free or close to free (to both prove the model and drive growth), Lawson notes that some of the big national brands are spending some big time money to advertise locally. These campaigns range from $10,000 to $200,000, Lawson says.

Something else that interests me about Brightkite is their unique approach to social relationships. When it started, Brightkite had a symmetrical model, much like Facebook and Foursquare, which requires users to accept each other as friends. But late last year, the company switched the model to be an asymmetrical one, like Twitter, where one party can follow another without permission.

This may seem like a horrible idea for a location-based service given the privacy implications, but Brightkite’s is a bit different of an asymmetrical model. “Our model is asymmetrical (like Twitter), but reversed. With Twitter, you decide who to follow but anyone can see your content.  With Brightkite, you decide who to share your content with, but you can only see others if they decide to share with you,” Lawson notes. He continues, “We are convinced this is the right model for location based services – people want to be in control of who knows where they are. We turned away from the handshake model (Facebook, Foursquare) because we found users didn’t like the social pressure of having to accept a friend request. Just because you are happy to share your location with me, doesn’t mean I want to share mine with you, even though we want to maintain a relationship.

As someone who has dealt with this many times before, I see his point. Lawson says that generally Brightkite users have been receptive to the changes, but says that some older users liked some of the more advanced features of the old model better — and Brightkite is working to get some best-of-both-worlds options for them.

Brightkite merged with another location-based network, Limbo, last year and raised some new funding. They face a battle in warding off the fast-charging hot location networks like Foursquare and Gowalla (not to mention Yelp and the new Google Buzz), but all of them appear to be benefiting from brand interest in the local advertising space.