30 Days Into Foursquare’s Great Schism: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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foursquare_logo11Foursquare’s contentious app unbundling took place exactly one month ago. Timed incidentally with this monthly column and the eve of Street Fight Summit West, it could be a good time to examine the temperature from media, analysts like me, and — most of all — users.

The latter is of course the key question. Vitals include whether or not Foursquare die-hards will migrate to Swarm. More importantly, will peeling off social and location tracking features to Swarm make Foursquare proper the more broadly applicable and mainstream-friendly local discovery engine it’s hoping to be?

The Good
The yin and yang of Foursquare and Swarm will be the key to answering these questions. Foursquare VP of Sales Rob Wilk told BIA/Kelsey’s Leading in Local conference last month that the two apps will share the same data backbone. And it will be a rich one, based on the pervasive behavioral tracking of Swarm’s intended power users.

Backing up, Foursquare has been saying for years that it wants to move away from the check-in and be known as a local discovery engine that’s fueled by all that past check-in data. I’ve always thought this to be logically flawed because what will be the source of ongoing data (local data requires a high refresh rate) if it kills the check-in?

Swarm is the answer to that question. If it’s able to scale usage, pervasive tracking will create one of the richest and constantly refreshed behavioral data sets in local (Facebook’s proximity play looms with massive volume). Then Foursquare can become the predictive engine that Dennis Crowley told me three years ago that he wanted to build.

But as a PSA: please stop saying “Yelp killer.” Besides that eye-roll inducing cliche of category “killers” which generalist tech media eat up, Foursquare and Yelp are very different animals. The latter’s usage, revenues, business model, and local sales assets put it (for now) in an entirely different ball park as I keep saying.

The Bad
Even if Foursquare catches up to Yelp in usage and footprint, tech media always seem to forget the fierce monetization challenges of a fragmented SMB marketplace. Just as we discussed last month around Facebook’s local ambitions, the need for ad sales — either channel or direct — is critical (Cue Yelp again).

Back to the usage question, will Swarm reach the levels needed to capture all that data as intended? Location data is a bitch, for the same reason that SMB ad sales are: fragmentation. Achieving network effect — which socially oriented apps live on — ain’t easy when the need for proximity relevance is countered by a geographically dispersed user base.

Foursquare circa 2009 was one of the few companies among thousands that actually achieved this network effect — partly due to its NYC roots where population density eases that geo-hampered network effect. But this is exactly what surprised me at first about Swarm… Foursquare is willingly starting that painful process over with a new app.

That’s why it’s vital that Foursquare cross pollinate power users to Swarm, excuse the pun. Then again, the key question I discussed on stage with Asif Khan last month is if an arguably waning user base (50 million users, an unknown percentage of which are “active”) can withstand being split in two? The answer will have to come from new growth.

The Ugly (or Unsexy)
Foursquare continues to cite the Facebook-led trend to unbundle apps. This is indeed happening as evolving app use cases and competitive realities compel doing one thing and doing it well. But with the exception of Instagram, I’m not convinced Facebook’s off-brand app arsenal screams success (Poke, Messenger, Home, Paper, etc.).

If any of this sounds tough on Foursquare, consider it tough love. I’m pulling for the company as a longtime user, industry watcher, and disruption lover. For a company that in media terms is “sexy”, the play for Foursquare could be as unsexy as data. The local behavioral data unlocked by passive tracking, if voluminous enough, could be tremendously valuable.

That value could equal a healthy exit to one of several deep-pocketed companies chasing local. But given Dennis Crowley’s vision and his history with acquisitions (see Google/Dodgeball), Foursquare’s success story, if written, would more likely involve the standalone local discovery engine we’ve been waiting for. Then maybe we’ll see a category killer deserving of the name.

speaker_MichaelBolandMichael Boland is senior analyst and VP of content at BIA/Kelsey. Previously, he was a tech journalist for Forbes, Red Herring, Business 2.0, and other outlets.

Mike Boland has been a tech & media analyst for the past two decades, specifically covering mobile, local, and emerging technologies. He has written for Street Fight since 2011. More can be seen at Localogy.com