What’s Foursquare Really For?

The best social sites have clearly stated goals. Facebook is for connecting with friends. Twitter is for live updates. LinkedIn is for business networking.

So what is Foursquare? The smartphone app allows you to “check in” to a location, with the option of adding a comment and/or sharing the update on Facebook and Twitter. You can leave a “tip” at your location, so other users will see “Be sure to try the nachos!” when they check in at the same restaurant. 

You get points and badges for various “achievements,” whether it’s visiting five different Italian restaurants or traveling to different states. You can compete with your friends for the most achievements. Whoever checks in the most at a location, whether it’s a park or a store or the Rose Bowl, becomes the “Mayor,” with their photo on the location’s main page.

But what’s it all for? The points have no value. You don’t need a third party to announce your location on Facebook and Twitter. The tips aren’t moderated, leading to weird or unhelpful comments, and old tips can become outdated. When you check in at a museum or gallery, for example, you’ll see many posts about exhibits that are long gone. 

One of the best uses for the service was for businesses to offer discounts to anyone who checked, or to the Mayor. Dozens of Houlihan’s franchises give a free order of fries for every check-in, while the current Mayor receives 10% off all food items. This strategy could lead to consumers actually competing over who visits an establishment the most — a dream of any store owner. But few companies have followed Houlihan’s lead.

Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley recently spoke to VentureBeat about the service’s “identity crisis.” He said Foursquare is “most interested in taking the data from check-ins to model what’s happening in the real world, and help people find new things.” He pointed to Radar, an app now available on phones running iOS5, which alerts you when your friends are nearby or when you’re near a venue you’ve told Foursquare you want to visit.

I’ll be the first to say that Facebook and Twitter can’t match that. But just a few weeks later, Foursquare also announced that it was adding menus to 250,000 restaurant listings. Even Yelp and Urbanspoon don’t offer that feature. But how is it social? How do recommendations and menus align with points, badges, and tips? How will any of these lead to more businesses offering discounts to attract new customers?

It seems that Foursquare has a lot of good ideas but isn’t sure which direction take. If Zagat, now owned by Google, adds menus to its app, it could quickly overtake Foursquare’s new feature. Facebook’s “Add a location to this post” option now threatens Foursquare on another flank. And I travel all over New York City and hardly ever see a Foursquare sticker on a store window or the logo on the menu.

I hope Crowley can find a clear path for Foursquare. After all, it’s a great concept. But its time is running out.

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