Michael Boland is a guest author. To submit a guest post, go here.
In the location wars of the past two years, one of the battle cries has been the need to continually innovate “beyond the check-in” — building things on top of the core check-in function, driven by evolving device capability and user demand (or boredom).
At least week’s Where 2.0 conference in Santa Clara, California, Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley talked about how the check-in grows up even as it stays focused on “the relationship between people and places.”
“If you use [Foursquare] three times a day over three months, we know a lot about you,” he said during his keynote. “But we haven’t really looked at the future tense. It’s always been about past and present, but that’s a big opportunity to tell people what to do next.”
“We can take stuff like the direction that you’re walking, how quickly are you walking, who you’re with, and have you stopped for a while to eat lunch.”
This is in line with the general trend in location-based services towards discovery and away from the search paradigm that ruled the desktop. The idea is to walk a fine line between push and pull by discerning user interest and offering points of discovery accordingly. And Foursquare has a nice big data set to work with – half a billion check-ins in the last year.
The company has already tried this direction with brand campaigns like Pepsi and more recently in the Explore feature of its 3.0 version, which launched in March. New features push place suggestions and specials based on a combination of your past check-in activity and the places you’re friends have visited or liked.
But there is still room to grow, says Crowley, who has been a longtime proponent of check-ins as a means, not an end. Melding Foursquare with other media like Twitter — or even newspapers — can create systems that save ideas and tips that alert users next time related items are nearby.
To do this, there’s lots of untapped potential in evolving smartphone capability and penetration. The recently launched Color (however overvalued) lets users take pictures of each other and automatically knows which way the camera is facing to triangulate proximity and initiate social groups.
“We can take stuff like the direction that you’re walking, how quickly are you walking, who you’re with, and have you stopped for a while to eat lunch,” he said. “All this stuff that’s coming in from your phone and network sensors can surface opportunities.”
Automatic signals like this are where innovation will lie for Foursquare. For one, Crowley claims background location is a goal, so that proximity to places and users is more pervasive, automatic and thus appealing to a broader base (beyond the “tech obsessed” that Goby CEO Mark Watkins referred to in his slam on check-in services on ReadWriteWeb recently).
“You have to think about it, take the phone out of your pocket, and [take] 20 seconds to check in,” he said. “The way we get from 10 million users to 50 or 100 million is with something that people don’t have to actively use as much. It’s in your pocket and it comes alive when it needs to.”
The remaining challenge is on the merchant end: appealing to small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) to utilize Foursquare’s dashboard to manage specials and drive this foot traffic. There are benefits in the tangible results, but also longstanding challenges and misconceptions of the SMB marketplace that need to be overcome.
But Crowley reminded me that the company has reached 300,000 merchants without one local sales rep – an anomaly for anyone that knows the local space. That could simply be due to the clearer return on investment (not unlike Groupon’s appeal to SMBs), than lots of other media.
“Merchants have different levers to adjust and see the result of people coming into their store,” he told me. “To get to a million it might take something else, but it says something how we’ve gone from zero to 300,000.”
Mike Boland is senior analyst at BIA/Kelsey, where he heads up the firm’s mobile local coverage. Previously, he was a tech journalist for Forbes, Red Herring, Business 2.0 and others.