Geo-location is a hot ticket item right now, with companies large and small getting into the social check-in game. But the gaming features of are only one aspect of geo-location. According to the founders of Gowalla and Foursquare, geo-targeting is going places with all that information their companies are collecting.

At TWTRCON in New York on Monday, the “Right Time, Right Place” panelists were focused on what comes after socializing via geo-location. 

Check-in startups Gowalla and Foursquare are currently embroiled in a battle for tech-savvy, check-in happy users. But it’s harder to make the case for broadcasting location to an older, less social demographic. Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley explains his company like this:

“Facebook is everyone you
know, Twitter is people you find entertaining, Foursquare is people you
hang out with in real life.”

But outside of urban areas, the people you hang out with in real life aren’t always close by. That’s why check-in companies are building more layers into their business models. Gowalla for instance, does a healthy business selling virtual goods.

Foursquare meanwhile has been getting a lot of attention for its partnerships, creating special badges for brands like Bravo and The Wall Street Journal to hand out to viewers and readers who check-in on Foursquare. The company is also working with small businesses to give users special deals and credits at their favorite merchants.

Starbucks has gotten a lot of attention for its Foursquare offers. Currently, the coffee purveyor is offering mayors of its local branches discounts on Frappucinos. Starbucks product manager of online strategy Brad Nelson says the company has made a lot of progress in social. He says of Starbucks approach to ROI in social a few years ago:

“These are little ways to drive awareness that we like. When we started, no one
cared about the R because there was so little I.”

Now the company is trying to invest in ways to implement its social strategy across multinational branches. Foursquare has been great for the company.

According to Crowley, Foursquare handles about 50,000 check-ins per week. With promotions available on the service, companies are seeing those numbers jump up to 50%. As he says:

“A lot of local merchants are seeing that with specials, more people are coming in, there’s more chatter, and a direct increase in sales they’re promoting on Foursquare.”

But according to Adam Ostrow, editor in chief of Mashable, checking into locations is just the tip of the iceberg with geo-location services:

“The idea of checking into events in real time is one of the exciting things you’ll see.”

And Crowley says that geo-location is not limited to the notion of checking-in:

“Everyone looks at the space and thinks it’s all about the check-ins. But it’s important to look at the way Twitter has involved over time.”

According to Crowley, Twitter may have started out as a way for people to share what they’re doing with friends, but it quickly expanded past that purpose. Users share news and information with a growing number of strangers. And many people don’t share anything. They use Twitter as a micro-RSS feed and to learn what’s going on in the world. Crowley says the same thing will happen with geo-location:

“You can be a consumer or a contributor, or you can be a little of both. We’re building these amazing social utilities based on location data. A lot of people are using them to create content. the next stage is consuming content.”

Foursquare has opened up its API so that people and companies can build additional functionality on top of the existing check-in and badge features the company has created. As users play with geo-location applications and fill in data and recommendations, the services become infinitely more valuable. 

Coming out of SXSW, the challenge for competitors Gowalla and Foursquare was which could get the most users fastest. But now, with bigger companies like Google and Facebook getting into the check-in game, it looks like the check-in service with the most active (and prolific users) could be the one to run away with the check-in game. If geo-location really does move beyond check-ins, it looks like he who has the best content will win.

Image: Starbucks/Foursquare