Free advertising is always good. The only thing better is free advertising from the mouths (or written word) of happy customers.

With location-based social networking, that is exactly what your business can achieve. Brick and mortar businesses can now entice foot traffic without spending advertising dollars.

They can tailor special offers to customers who “check in” to the popular location-based platforms such as Foursquare or Gowalla on their smart phones while they shop, or eat. Even Facebook is in on the craze, with its Places application.

By checking in, they are putting the word out about your business to their entire network of friends. Maybe someone who wasn’t thinking about a juicy burger before, is now thinking about ordering one at your restaurant. Or, maybe they are thinking about a book from your bookstore. Whatever the case may be, the power of suggestion is strong.

Some of the platforms, such as Yelp, allow customers to write reviews. A few positive reviews can tremendously aid your business’s ability to spread the word.  When you talk about how great your business is, you sound like a broken record. When a customer does it, potential customers listen.

What can a business do to encourage customers to “check in” or mention them on these location-based networks? Plenty.  Customers need an incentive, so give them one that you are comfortable with. If you’re a restaurant, maybe it’s a free appetizer, or beverage, or 10 percent off a meal.

If you are a retail store, maybe offer a specific section of discounted product for location-based social media users.  Customers will take note as they reap the benefits.

Offering a discount to one customer is cheaper than placing an ad in the paper, and arguably more effective if that customer is telling hundreds of friends where he does his business.

By acknowledging and participating on these platforms, your business has the chance to place its name, and possibly some reviews in front of thousands of potential customers. That is never a bad thing.