This Is the More-Social Network

The ideal social network is broad and selective at the same time. Here's how one app uses geofencing — and harnesses existing social networks — to make that happen.

Geofencing creates a virtual perimeter around one or more locations.

The goal of InfluencerCon, held from Oct. 3-5, 2012, was to bring together a diverse group of influential thinkers — everyone from performance artists to chefs to venture capitalists — to share ideas. In five cities: Berlin, London, Mumbai, New York, and Sao Paulo. Simultaneously. “We don’t want [attendees] to come and buy a ticket and sit there,” said Philip McKenzie, InfluencerCon’s founder. “We want to build a community.”

McKenzie’s solution was to build a conference network with a geofencing-enabled app called Topi. A geofence is a virtual perimeter set up around a geographic area. By using location-based software and GPS, now built into most mobile devices, geofencing makes it possible, for example, for retailers to recognize when customers enter a given area. If you’ve downloaded the Starbucks app on a mobile device, geofencing “sees you” when you walk into a store and can send you a message or coupon.

In the events world, the potential for geofencing is huge — and so far, largely untapped, according to Topi founder and CEO David Aubespin, who conceived of the app out of a nostalgic desire to digitally enable the kinds of relationships that are struck up at a cafe or bar. “Messaging is at the core of the app — it’s not an afterthought,” he said.

It seemed odd, he said, that the Internet makes it possible for us to make specific connections with people halfway across the world, but still miss out on connecting with people sitting two rows away from us at conferences. Apps such as Topi that leverage geofencing can help meeting attendees — as well as exhibitors and sponsors — easily find others within defined locations, such as convention centers and hotel ballrooms. But to help people make the most relevant connections, Aubespin, a former Google manager, added a “PeopleRank” algorithm to Topi that gives weight to emotionally meaningful ties, such as shared hometowns and alma maters, as well as to descriptors like job titles. Users can link Topi with their profiles on Twitter, Facebook, and Linkedln, with more networks to be added.

Topi’s geofences can facilitate networking at events that occur in multiple locations — such as InfluencerCon. The three-day conference began in Mumbai and “headed west, picking up Europe,” McKenzie said. “New York City was the last to wake up and leap into the experience.” Approximately 2,000 people participated — and Topi allowed InfluencerCon to still create “a very personal experience,” he said.

Participants who downloaded the app before InfluencerCon began conversations that they then picked up in person and online during the event, McKenzie said. Topi also gives attendees access to conversations after the event has ended.

Topi gave InfluencerCon’s organizers the technical means to connect people across geography and time zones in a “really rich way,” McKenzie said. “It’s a unique time in history — tools like Topi are matching up to our ambitions.”

Fully Loaded

Topi recently added the ability to instantly translate messages into a recipient’s preferred language — it supports 66. Beyond that, the app has as many features as a Swiss army knife has blades, allowing users to send voice recordings, messages, photos, and drawings; create public and private chat rooms; and send automatic Linkedln invites.

It also offers seamless registration: Attendees are automatically “checked in” once they enter a predefined event area, and can launch an event app and automatically gain access to event material. The basic app is free, but a paid version lets meeting planners add schedules, maps, and content, and allows sponsors to send messages to attendees, including ones targeted to specific groups.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.