Is it a revolution in location based social media, or the latest fad destined to fizzle out?
Any seasoned Foursquare user is familiar with the ebb and flow in interest with the application's use. After initially registering for an account, the excitement that comes along with each additional check-in can only fully be understood by a fellow Foursquare user. Before you know it, you're planning your lunch break based upon the likelihood of obtaining a new (or securing an existing) mayorship. Your nights out are swayed in the direction of adding to your collection of badges. You won't even commit to where you grab a cup of coffee before scouting the other Foursquare users in attendance.
The check-ins keep coming, but the badges and mayorships don't.
“[Insert mayor's name here] cheats. There's no way he/she is here more often than me. I live here.”
The push notification to your smart phone alerting you that a quasi-acquaintance is at the grocery store across town is more irritating than informative. Your co-worker is the mayor of the cubicle next to you, bathroom stall number 4, his parents' garage, his favorite park bench, and won't stop bragging how much better at Foursquare he is than you.
The novelty has worn thin.
I now present to you, two possible paths for Foursquare. Path number one leads to an impending lull in curiosity and eventual demise. Path number two makes Foursquare the most important location based application your smart phone will ever need. The outcome lies squarely in Foursquare's hands.
Path # 1: Foursquare, the Fad.
Fad – A phenomenon that becomes popular for a very short time.
Is Twitter in danger of falling into this category? While 87% of people in the U.S. are familiar with the service, only 7% actually use it. Compare this to Facebook, whose percentages are 88% and 41%, respectively. Although the same amount of people are familiar with Facebook's and Twitter's services, 34% more of the population find Facebook worthy of their time.
Clearly, Twitter is not going to fall off the map any time soon. Twitter has broken major stories; its even saved lives. Too many people dedicate too much of their day to it. With this said, even a service as valuable as Twitter is having trouble reaching past the early adopters.
Foursquare's beginnings are eerily similar to that of Twitter's: consecutive years of being the center of attention at SXSW, initial skyrocketing growth, major media adoption, etc. But until Foursquare starts providing enough value to the casual user, it's ceiling appears to be significantly lower than that of Twitter's. Granted, most tech companies would kill (figuratively) to reach Twitter's heights, but Foursquare has the potential to even surpass that.
For the time being, Foursquare seems to be content as a service which notifies friends of their whereabouts, co-founder and CEO of Foursquare. In addition to showing where your friends are, Foursquare will also indicate the “trending places” to better inform of the busiest venues.
Although, this is may be a game changer in the way people stay connected while out on the town, is it enough to reach past the early adopters? In my humble opinion, it is not. A night out on the town, for most, already includes their inner circle. The service may have more use to those who bounce around from one social group to the next on a nightly basis. I could see the appeal for the highly-networked, entrepreneurial type, however, it's less handy to the average Joe.
But even if you disagree with the above premise, Foursquare leaves itself vulnerable to its soon-to-be greatest competitor. Facebook will soon be unveiling their new mobile platform which will include a yet to be seen “places” tab. If Foursquare sees itself merely as a means to connect friends, Facebook, with its immense user base, has the potential to wipe Foursquare off of the map.
Path # 2: Foursquare, the Universal Rewards Program
If Foursquare won't be able to sustain long-term success as a networking tool, it's biggest competitive advantage is its check-in rewards system. This includes badges, mayorships, and discounts. To clarify even further, let's break down this system of rewards into two categories: reputation-based and monetary.
1) Reputation – Reputation is one of the greatest factors which drives human behavior. Whether it's having 100,000 Twitter followers, 2,000 subscribers to your blog, being the best basketball player in your school, or the smartest person in the office, we all put great significance into furthering and protecting our reputations. Foursquare does an excellent job of recognizing and reinforcing this human need. First, by offering badges (as simple as it may seem) you're rewarding people's rather ordinary, and unimpressive, behavior (i.e. after visiting to 25 different venues, checking in after 3:00am on a weekday, being one of 50 people to check into the same place). Although the criteria it takes to achieve one of these badges is nothing extraordinary, our badge count is on display for the entire Foursquare world to see. Even in recognizing its superficial nature, still, I feel a desire to obtain more of these miniature digital art pieces.
Even greater than the reputation that comes along with a Foursquare badge, is the sense of superiority of being the mayor of a given establishment. Every time someone checks into their current venue, the mayor's profile is prominently on display. Perhaps there's nothing inherently impressive with being the person who most frequently visits their local sandwich shop, but again, Foursquare is both building, and more importantly creating, positive reputation for something that is, under normal circumstances, considered routine.
However, the reputation that comes along with earning mayorships and badges is negated by those who game the system. The person who spends the entire night at the same bar, knows all of the employees and most of the regulars, is valued the same as someone who quickly runs in and out of the bathroom (at least by Foursquare's valuation). The average user isn't willing to check into every venue they pass on the street simply for the sake of building their Foursquare stats. The people who do this, deter the rest from fully participating in Foursquare's game.
In other words, Foursquare can't rely on reputation alone…
2) Monetary Rewards – And thus I present to you Foursquare's greatest potential. Money, much like reputation, has a profound effect on our behavior.
When I attempt to pitch the concept of Foursquare to my less technologically adept friends, I notice their eyes rolling and their attention waning- until I get to the part about free drinks. “Free drinks? Go on…” As the mayor of select establishments you're rewarded a free cocktail (or similar prize) each time you stop by. The businesses win because more people will go out of their way to come. The users win because they're being incentivized for simply continuing their normal consumption patterns. Foursquare wins because more people will start to download and use their service.
However, simply rewarding the mayor isn't enough until Foursquare is able to more fairly regulate who can check in. Like I mentioned before, you're rewarded equally for spending an entire night at the same bar as you are be for picking a toothpick off of the hostesses stand (if you go inside at all). Foursquare has already taken measures to verify you're actually nearby the venue you're checking into, but I don't think it's enough. I'm not sure what the answer is, maybe entering a unique Foursquare code from your receipt, including a total time elapsed while inside the venue, or blacklisting people who are caught cheating, to name a few possible ideas. I don't claim to have all of the answers…
Foursquare's greatest potential is to utilize and expand upon these rewards. I have more, “buy 12, get one free” reward cards in my wallet then I know what to do with. I usually neglect to bring the card with me in an effort to consolidate wallet space anyway. I believe Foursquare can, and should be, the universal rewards card. One application for every loyalty program. In exchange, users forfeit information over to the businesses, which is what they're after in the first place, and the users get to consolidate all of their rewards down to one beautiful mobile application. It's the perfect example of technology adding value to the general public.
What's your take? Can Foursquare succeed merely as a social map? Would an application that serves as an all-in-one rewards card be of more use? What direction would you like to see Foursquare head in? Leave a comment or insight below and we might just send you a TECH cocktail sticker for your time.
Editor's Note: Zach Davis is an independent Internet marketer and consultant with a specialty in social media marketing, creative content production, and branding. He has a BBA in Marketing from the Wisconsin School of Business and currently works and lives in San Diego, CA. You can find Zach's personal website at zrdavis.com or follow him on twitter @zrdavis.