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Pokémon Go: A Skeptic’s Guide to Catching Them All

In online marketing, we talk about owned versus rented space on the web. Owned spaces are things like your website or blog, where you make all of the decisions. You play by your own rules (for better or for worse). Your Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social platforms are all examples of rented space, or spaces where you have to “pay to play.” These are platforms that offer great marketing opportunities, but where you are inevitably at the beck and whim of the owners of the platform.

Remember the lawless days of Facebook’s past, where it was a wasteland of 100% text filled images, Share-Like-Tag giveaways and pages posing as profiles? That’s what the new marketing buzz surrounding Pokémon Go feels like. Business owners who were among the lucky few to be located near Pokéstops, or even better – find that their business IS a Pokéstop – were quick to jump on the opportunity to drop lures, drive traffic and rake in the dough. But what happens when the honeymoon phase comes to an end? What are the implications for business when our new, augmented digital world isn’t just Lure Modules and Lucky Eggs? Savvy marketers will find a way to capitalize on the game’s immersive environment, but there are a few things to consider before investing your real-world coins.


During the short life of the app, there have been a number of Pokémon Go-centric events that have gathered sizable crowds – some exceeding thousands – breathing life into languishing shopping areas. Many of these events, unfortunately, were met with their worst case scenario: a crowd ready to “catch’em all,” but downed servers locked out users for hours on end. While any web-driven resource is subject to these vulnerabilities, the erratic and frustrating server situation is as real a threat to an event as rain is to a parade.


With each and every update to the app, there are more and more users who are giving up (at least temporarily) on the game. The loss of users began when the tracking features were disabled, reportedly to help lighten server load. With the last update released in July, the developers at Niantic essentially disabled all ability to track Pokémon. Additionally, the company had a hand in the removal of all third-party tracking apps through the Apple store and Google Play stores. This, coupled with a lack of communication from the developers has upset a wide base of users. It’s always a scary prospect to bank on a platform that has waning support from the most vocal segment of its user base.


Niantic, the company behind the app, has announced plans for their first phase of third party monetization for the app: sponsored, temporary Gym and Pokéstop locations. The team has announced that their first partner in the promotion will be McDonald’s, who will transform each of their 3,000 locations in Japan. Pokéstops will reportedly require the business to pay on a “per spin” or “per visit” basis, much like “pay per click” advertising already seen on Google and other social platforms. While this may sound like a new opportunity to drive business and an increased network of Pokéstops for players, there may be more beneath the surface.

Consider what happened when Facebook began monetizing the platform. In the earlier days, your posts would be served to every user who liked your page. After rolling out their monetization plan, the organic reach for Facebook posts has fallen to single digit percentages for many pages. Facebook no longer gives away the benefits that it can charge a premium for. But how does this affect Pokémon Go?

Without getting too deep into the history of how Pokémon Go came to be, it’s important to understand what qualifies a location to be a pokéstop. Back when Niantic was still part of Google (remember this important fact for later), they built a similar game called Ingress. In developing the game, they set up major monuments or places of significance as the proverbial “Pokéstops” of Ingress. From there, they allowed users to submit locations for inclusions. The approved locations now number more than 5 million, according to In developing Pokémon Go, the creators transported these locations into the Pokémon world. The fact that your small business happens to be a Pokéstop is a byproduct of previous work done by Niantic and does not indicate that you were selected for inclusion. So with that in mind, let’s proceed.

Imagine that you are McDonalds. You are now paying for a partnership with Niantic in order to turn your locations into Pokéstops. Mom & Pop’s Local Burger Shop already enjoys the privilege of being a Pokéstop, a holdover from when the app developers imported maps and locations from Ingress. Would you guess that McDonald’s would be pleased with the fact that they now pay per spin while Mom & Pop’s is a featured stop without having to pay? Remember that Niantic was once part of Google, the kings of monetizing information and access. While the creators have not given any indication that the map of current Pokéstops will shift once the paid platform has rolled out, it’s not a stretch to imagine that the current landscape will look different once outside dollars begin driving the app.


Perhaps the most exciting thing about Pokémon go has absolutely nothing to do with Pokémon at all. The app has done an incredible job at immediately throwing users head first into the world of augmented reality, or AR, whether they know it or not. Just as with Snapchat’s special lenses, augmented reality is permeating the everyday lives of mobile users across the globe. The adoption of AR on this wide of a scale has implications for other location-based marketing initiatives. Laying content on top of the real world opens up a new realm of interaction between businesses and users of mobile devices. Previous attempts at connecting the real world with the digital world have been met with opposition. Remember QR codes? The Pokémon Go phenomenon proves to developers and marketers that users are willing to connect third-party apps with their Google accounts and interact with applications that MUST know exactly where you are in order for them to function. Apparently, all it takes is a free app download, a couple of cute monsters and a sprinkle of nostalgia. And while this may seem like a dream scenario for the AR/VR community, only time will tell if the Pokémon Go phenomenon will be a Cinderella story or a cautionary tale for future developers in the world of augmented reality.