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Foursquare: Novelty or Buzz Worthy?

It’s no secret that I’m a bit of an app junkie, but I’m also one of the biggest critics of developers putting out useless apps that have little value to end-users and are nothing more then a novelty. So, when Foursquare (a location based social network app that tracks your location and shares it with friends when you “check-in” to places) emerged as the “next big thing” at SXSWi, I questioned whether FourSquare could really live up to its buzz. After all, do we really care about tracking our friends and colleagues whereabouts on a Monday afternoon at 2PM or that they are the “Mayor” (an honor you earn if you have been to a place more than anyone else) of their local coffee shop? Sure the competitive nature of trying to become “Mayor” is fun, and discovering new things about your city is cool. Personally, I think the real value of Foursquare is the community aspect and seeing friends’ recommendations on local places near the area where they checked in. However, “Foursquare users still seem to be more focused on the competition surrounding mayorships and badge acquisition than they are around sharing valuable information,” said Jenny Mackintosh, a social media consultant at Boston University.

So is Foursquare valuable enough to become the next Facebook or Twitter? Should nonprofits take a more serious look at FourSquare and explore ways to leverage it?

“I think Foursquare’s seamless integration with Facebook and Twitter – tools people already use and the social recognition that comes with obtaining badges, points, etc… is why it was dubbed the breakout technology of 2010,” said Carie Lewis who manages the Humane Society of the United States social media.

HSUS has created a profile on Foursquare and are currently trying to figure out how to utilize it best – whether it's encouraging members to check in where HSUS is holding events or “something more elusive like where our CEO is. Whatever we do, we want to make sure it's actually useful for us and tied to the goals of our social media program, not just buying into ‘shiny object syndrome,’ ” said Lewis.

Since Foursquare launched in 2009, the team says on their blog that they have come a long way with:

  • Over 500,000 users 
  • Over 1 million badges have been awarded
  • Over 1.4 million venues with 1200 offering promotions
  • Over 15.5 million check-ins

Geoff Livingston of Zoetica Media, says Foursquare has reached the tipping point. “There are enough GPS enabled smartphones on the market that people can use it. The curiosity and fun factor are there and users of other social networks can’t escape the check-ins posted on every popular social network.”

However, Livingston says “Foursquare has yet to unveil a nonprofit component, and at this point it’s a pay-to-play social network.  And it has been so costly for badges that in a few instances we’ve suggested alternative mobile solutions which would yield better results per dollar.”  

Livingston raises good points about Foursquare and nonprofits. CampInteractive, a Bronx-based nonprofit raised $10K after Pepsi offered to sponsor the NYC leaderboad on Foursquare in December 2009 as part of their “Refresh Everything” community-giving initiative to help raise money for the organization. The points earned by checking in were transferred into dollars at the rate of 4 cents per point. The organization was local, which may have compelled more New York-network members to participate, said Mackintosh. Foursquare’s embedded leaderboard kept up morale and boosted the competitive nature of the campaign. Would CampInteractive have been able to raise the $10K without a partnership between Foursquare (they helped secure the sponsor and promoted it) and Pepsi though?

“Geolocation is such a hot topic right now. Therefore just like with any other new technology I think nonprofits should explore it and see if there's a fit,” said Lewis.

Interested in testing out Foursquare as part of your online outreach strategy? Start by trying to figure out the overlap between where people in your target audience will be checking in and what change they can affect on the issues at those locations, said Mike Panetta of the Beekeeper Group.

“For example, if were trying to get people to stop eating Chilean Sea Bass, I would promote a recommendation along the lines of, ‘Please don't get Chilean Sea Bass, as it's over-fished and in danger of becoming extinct. Why not try a nice tuna instead?’ to be added to restaurants and supermarkets.”

Panetta warns though “for the most part, people lead predictable lives. Expect to see a lot of check-ins at supermarkets, big box retail stores, chain restaurants, etc. Think strategically about how you can get them to do something for you in those establishments, after all they will have their smartphone in their hand.”

What do you think? Novelty or total buzz?

You should follow Frogloop on Twitter.


Reader Comments (16)

Thanks for the post.

I'm on the Foursquare is hype side for now. I don't have time, and few I know, have time for YASN or Yet Another Social Network.

Shaun Dakin
March 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShaun Dakin
I had some fun with FourSquare at SXSW. Kinda mocked the whole "oversharing" aspect of this and made some fun videos. Its pretty hypey right now but then again - location-enabled stuff is the big thing now. Check out the videos - hope you enjoy! http://www.cdt.org/blogs/adam-rosenberg/what-too-much-locational-data-sxsw-can-do
March 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Rosenberg
I'm interested in how FourSquare could be used as a volunteer mobilization tool. For example, if you check in at a volunteer project, you could "shout" if other volunteers were still needed. Because Four Square can connect to your twitter feed, other volunteers could join you. Also, what if Four Square could capture volunteer attendance through check ins and help nonprofits calculate the resulting impact? I was on the phone this morning with Chris at myimpact.org and he's thinking about a way that tweeters could tweet in their service hours to a central place where they would be aggregated. This is cool in that an individual could keep track of their service activity, but what if the data went farther than that? What if it also fed back to the nonprofit, your LinkedIn "civic cv" if you wanted it to, etc.? What would it mean to be The Mayor of a particular service project? Do you "unlock the service hero badge"? Do you "unlock custom rewards" offered through cause marketing partnerships? There are some really interesting opportunities here.
March 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Kirkwood
Great post Allyson. I think its important to take a step back from Foursquare and look at the idea of "Location" as the next evolution of the web. Twitter has already incorporated location into its platform and Facebook will likely follow suit.

Foursquare wasn't the only location-based service on display at SXSWi. Gowalla, Loopt, Whrrl, Brightkite, Burbn, MyTown, CauseWorld, and Hot Potato (among others) also factored into what people are referring to as the "Location Wars." It seems as though location-services are in the same place social media was a decade ago. Each startup is fighting for the position of dominant platform.

Check-ins and point accumulation are nice features, but they're simply the first phase of location. We'll have a much better idea of what a location-centric web looks like when smartphones and data plans become ubiquitous (as laptops and internet are now).

Until that time, its important for companies (for-profits and non-profits alike) to experiment with these services. See what sticks and remember, its okay to if your initial effort doesn't find the success you hoped for. If we aren't failing, we aren't doing.

As for Foursquare, its possible that it may go the way of the buffalo, like Friendster before it (and in my opinion, the inevitable end of Myspace) . As for location itself though, its safe to say that its gone beyond buzz, and will eventually be the next iteration of the web.

My advice is to not be overly focused on the platform itself, but on the plumbing (the concept of location!). Figure out how to your outreach efforts could be adopted to location. Platforms will come and go and its likely you'll have to maintain a presence on multiple networks (e.g. Twitter and Facebook today).

As we've seen with social media, the key will be in finding an overarching location strategy that is not a means to itself, but an extension of your overall efforts.
March 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBen Tannenbaum
FourSquare is a powerful platform. And it's built by really good people doing really good things. Brands (like Bravo, NYTimes, and Zagat) have readily embraced it. And there's tons of good data to pull from. Think of this scenario: Your organization is closely tied with Brooklyn Museum's demographic. By visiting Brooklyn Museum's venue page, you can see who's visited, and what they are saying : http://foursquare.com/brooklynmuseum

Why not use this data to connect Brooklyn Museum fans with your organization?

More impressive is Brooklyn Museum's use of FourSquare's data:

It's time to ask: Who's checked into your venues? Why are they doing this? How can you connect with those people who are checking in?

In addition to making Foursquare fun for its users, Foursquare is very useful for organizations. And people who are first adopters are using it. Actively.

If your organization or nonprofit can't figure out how to mobilize over 1million active users, you need to be asking other questions.
March 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJaki Levy
After using Foursquare for about a year now, I can see it's value as a connection tool for people. Using it to promote a cause is a lot more complicated. I took part in the Pepsi "Refresh Everything" initiative at SXSWi and loved how that all worked out. I don't know how hard those types of things are to arrange but I think it's a great way to draw attention to your cause.
March 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Krumlauf
Allyson, thanks for another awesome post. I agree with everyone quoted in the article and the comments as well. I too find the growth of Foursquare absolutely fascinating. I do see opportunities for nonprofits to use foursquare's API. I'll explain why below.

Whereas Twitter asks the question, "what are you doing right now" Foursquare asks, "where are you right now"
And geography matters, there's no doubt about that. That's precisely why Twitter, Facebook and Google Buzz support geolocation.

So the bigger question isn't if Foursquare will make it or not. The bigger question is how will the intersection of geolocation and the growth of mobile devices bring new opportunities for advocacy, fundraising, democracy, epidemiology, security and commerce (to name just a few).

The current and initial popularity of Foursquare was derived from it's early application of geolocation and the excitement of its gaming functionality, tied to it's over-arching ability to increase the feeling of connected among people (the connectedness is obviously the social networking component).

But the geolocation component isn't new anymore and in early March, Twitter and Facebook both turned on geolocation, so we'll begin to see innovative tie-ins to those API's.

And what about the game? No doubt the Foursquare game is a lot of fun. But like most games, the novelty wears off and some people are beginning to question the value of Foursquare because they've tired of the game.

Well, if the initial growth came from geolocation and the gaming functions, and both are not long term differentiators, where does that leave Foursquare? That's where the Foursquare API comes into the picture. While the intrinsic value of the gaming functionality will eventually wane, the API brings the promise of multiple innovations around the use of geographic information.

The release of the API opens the door to creating innovative extrinsic value from data analysis and visualization (both are hallmarks of geographic information systems or GIS). So the future power of Foursquare is in the data collection at the user level. With millions of mobile devices now capable of supporting geolocation, there's tremendous potential.

-- Imagine that you're a nonprofit organizing an offline meetup or better yet a march on Washington and you were able to prove that 30,000 people were there because they checked-in on the spot.

-- Imagine that you're a medical researcher and you were able to collect near real-time epidemiological data for analysis and visualization from the aggregation of multiple API's.

-- Imagine that you're an organization with a global workforce of 30,000 employees exposed to multiple risks and you need to negotiate a better insurance rate. What if your 30,000 employees checked-in every day and this allowed you to negotiate better rates with your insurance provider?

What makes Foursquare different isn't the API or geolocation, or integration with Twitter or Facebook -- it's the combination of the intrinsic value derived from the gaming functionality and it's potential as a platform for collecting geographic data. Again, I don't think the game will propel the growth long term, but the API has huge potential.

I can't predict the success of Foursquare and frankly I don't think that's even the most interesting question. The really exciting potential comes from the chance to bring geographic information to bear in innovative ways. The growth of mobile platforms is going to drive this development. I'm curious to see how Foursquare can hold on to it's position now that Twitter and Facebook have jumped on the geolocation bandwagon.
March 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHatef Yamini
@Ben - yes - there were other LBS (location based services) at SXSW, but foursquare is the clear winner right now. More checkins, more users, more reviews, and better business development strategies (Bravo, Zagat, NYTimes, etc).

Take a look at some blog posts from fourSquare's blog:

and here:

And finally here:
March 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJaki Levy
@jaki - no arguments that Foursquare is at the front of the pack and that if companies plan to experiment with location today, Foursqaure is the way to go (for all the reasons you stated and more, I'm sure).

That said, its important to look at location as an emerging medium unto itself (rather than simply focusing on a specific platform) when developing strategies that tie-into overall marketing efforts.

Geolocation will one day be as divergent as social media. A company wouldn't (I hope) forsake Twitter and blogging to focus on Facebook alone if all 3 were appropriate and effective areas for engagement.

While we aren't yet there with geolocation, its a good mindset to be in (medium over platform).

Personally, I think the future of location will develop far past what we see today. It would behoove companies to stay current on this entire sector to see how it grows beyond check-ins and point-based games.

This is no knock on Foursquare, but simply a historical reality of emerging technologies and networks :)
March 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBen Tannenbaum
Great post. I wrote a post last week, but didn't have time to finish it. I'm publishing my tommorrow - it summarizes my exploration and raises the same question. I think it is all about whether or not it is the right fit. Some organizations have more of an affinity with location-based strategies than others. I'll track back here
March 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBeth Kanter
Ah, well it was published today!!

The question to ask: How can this real-world connection via social media be useful for your organizations' communications strategies?

I think that museums and theatre companies might be a great position to come up with some strategic ways to use Foursquare or location-based social networks. Imagine being able to check-in at particular sections of a museum and unlock a prize or encourage people to go to the gift store.

Personally, the value of it as a personal tool has only just manifested itself to me after SXSW when I had a critical mass people I knew who were also using the tool.
March 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBeth Kanter
One thing I don't see mentioned here but that gets mentioned to me frequently is the lack of women as an overall demographic to be enthusiastic about adapting this, due to safety. Even with Facebook, there is a hesitation to post to the "What are you doing now?" question any response that might give away answers that would mention, "I'm on vacation," for example, letting potential burglars know that the house is empty.

I agree that Foursquare (and other location apps) will be more useful at such things as events, directing volunteers. Another thing that comes to mind would be at a convention with vendor booths. Instead of dropping in business cards at each booth for some prize, it could all be done online, checking in at the location. Of course, you'd have to physically see the booth to get some type of "code."
March 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterValerie Lambert
folks pounding 4sq down throats run the risk of being seen as spammers. Right now, the message is in the "plumbing" (LBS), not the branding (4sq). Dont be pushing one over the other, because right now, NONE of them have scaled. People forget that important fact.
March 30, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterseth hart
I am encouraging arts nonprofits in particular to make sure that Foursquare is part of their strategy. Not just for folks to "check in" but to create a since of community to see who of their friends are also there etc. http://blog.coolpeoplecare.org/twitter/time-for-arts-nonprofits-to-check-in-to-foursquare/
April 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNancy VanReece
That is cool that it is helping out not for profit. I think more companies need to jump on the foursquare perks bandwagon. It is easy publicity for them.
June 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStevetong
Hi Allyson,

I am a big fan of your site. You've always got great info. Anyway, I know that you are interested in Foursquare, so I thought you might like to check out the Foursquare app I've just built for Facebook and Wordpress.

"My Foursquare makes it easy to show off your badges, mayorships and checkins on Facebook, your blog or your website".


If you want more info I can send you a detailed blurb and screenshots etc. Thanks, and keep the good info coming!

Dave McKinney
My Foursquare
September 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave McKinney

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