Can Foursquare Get Its Mojo Back by Embracing ‘Passive’ Check-Ins?

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img_0246Over the past couple of weeks we’ve seen two separate posts on Business Insider from prominent tech folks about why they’ve stopped using Foursquare, the location-based check-in app that once held the rapt attention of the technology community, particularly in New York. Though their reasoning varies, the two posts highlight the fading allure of the service’s original hooks — social networking and game mechanics — as the company tries to rebrand itself as a social discovery tool to rival Yelp.

This shift from fun, social game to discovery app was certainly intentional. Foursquare’s leadership saw an opportunity to add value through recommendations and took it, beginning with a massive redesign of the application in June. But at some point in the company’s process of promoting Explore and repositioning Foursquare as a local discovery application, its raison d’être changed as well. The question guiding the product shifted from “What’s going around me?” to “Where should I go?” and the application’s value became less as (social) media property and more as a utility.

In a thoughtful post on Business Insider earlier this week, Brooklyn Bridge Ventures partner Charlie O’Donnell lamented the company’s decision to shift Foursquare away from its playful origins and set its sights on Yelp: “What I really want,” wrote O’Donnell, “is that app that made it more fun to interact with the world around me and be more social with friends in real life — and I think it’s very possible.”

O’Donnell went on to suggest that Foursquare’s managers reinvent the List feature by bringing in content through publisher partnerships (as the company did this week with Voice Media) and adding a social element to the game mechanics already implicit in making lists — a “lists with friends” of sorts. It’s a compelling use case, but O’Donnell’s point begs the question, Does Foursquare need to be “fun” anymore?

I’d say no. “Fun” means fighting an ever-diminishing battle over consumer mindshare on mobile — a fight that O’Donnell admits Foursquare is losing. It’s also contrary to what Foursquare is trying to build with Explore. Whereas a social network (what Foursquare was at launch) is evaluated by the quality of experience on the property, a discovery service (what Foursquare is today) is evaluated by the experience one has after leaving the property. Less is more. Boring is better.

But there’s a hitch. Foursquare can’t simply ditch the “check-in” that the company built its initial service on. On the surface, the check-in is a way to share location but also at its core it’s a data entry tool dressed as a social feature. It’s data entry made fun. So here’s the real predicament for Foursquare: Without the check-in, there’s no fuel for the recommendation engine. But without sustaining the social dynamics and game mechanics, there’s no reason for anyone to check-in.

So the company needs to either keep pushing the social and gaming features in addition to the discovery product (and essentially fight a war on two fronts, one against Yelp and the other against Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) or overhaul its data collection mechanism altogether.

Making the passive check-in work
Let’s consider Option 2. The problem today with Foursquare’s check-in is that the cost/benefit to the user is out of whack. Check out Street Fight co-founder David Hirschman’s column from last March for a deeper look at this issue. The problem is, a user is only going to remember to open the app and check in if he or she is engaged in the social side of the service (and the location merits sharing) or if there is some other incentive attached to checking in. But as Nat Salvione pointed out in his comments about why he dropped the service, the merchant-side incentives (the offers consumers can claim for checking in) have never added enough value to make the activity worth it.

If improving the value of a check-in is not a viable option, the other way to go is reduce friction. One solution would be to create a more passive, opt-in tool to track and code the venues and businesses a user visits. Checking in, as it were, would remain an active “push” action. If a user wanted to share location, he or she could do it through the same channels. But a passive tool makes possible the type of deep personalization that we’re seeing from projects like Google Now and opens up incredible opportunities for Foursquare’s users and advertisers alike.

Passive location analytics are quickly becoming a reality. I recently spoke with David Shim, founder and CEO of Placed, a Seattle-based company that has developed a set of algorithms to passively monitor a user’s location and identify when he or she visits a location without significant drain on cell batteries. Shim says from a technology perspective, a passive analytics tool is within Foursquare’s grasp.

Privacy concerns present a substantial barrier, but consumer attitude toward sharing location is evolving. And given Foursquare’s position in the market, it’s not out of the question.

Steven Jacobs is deputy editor of Street Fight.