Over the past five years, Foursquare has had quite an evolution. Once a buzzy darling of the location-media industry known for its consumer check-ins and gamification, the company has evolved into a location data powerhouse, connecting consumers’ digital actions to where they are and what they do in the real-world — and giving marketers the ability to reach out to targeted consumers based on their location history. CEO Jeff Glueck has said that the company’s rich location data gives it the opportunity to become “the Nielsen of the real world,” poising it to hit profitability in the next few years.
Street Fight recently spoke with Steven Rosenblatt, who became the Foursquare’s president earlier this year, about how the company has focused in on the explosion of location data, and why he is betting big on its ability to chart the path from ad to purchase.
Tell me a little bit about where Foursquare is at these days.
The company has evolved in a very strategic way. It all comes down to us being the leading location intelligence company. It’s much bigger and broader than where we were several years ago. We have a media business and an enterprise business, and both are evolving and growing. As part of the enterprise business we continue to build great partnerships like the one we announced recently with Uber.
The biggest tech companies in the world rely on our data, and we’re working with the most sophisticated firms on Wall Street that rely on our data. That shows the nature of the quality and the accuracy, and that nobody else can do what we do.
As you’ve made this shift to being more of a location data company, how important do the consumer apps continue to be?
I think we’ve always been a data company — we’ve always had incredible data. Our consumer apps will always be important to us, but I think the mindset of how large they have to get to have a business… if you’re in an ad-supported industry you need to have Facebook-size numbers, especially in mobile. We’re fortunate enough to have a very highly engaged consumer base, and if you have the kind of insight and intent data that we have you can do a lot of interesting things.
The consumer piece is important, but, that said… number one, the check-in is still strong and in fact people are checking in at an all-time high. More people check in today than ever. That’s still the ground-unit data that we are using to build the business. Where other companies say “oh, I have GPS data and that’s good enough” — you can’t just do things with GPS data. GPS is where we start. We look at wifi and Bluetooth and beacons, all the other signals, so that we can provide the best experience to our consumers, and our business partners benefit from that.
In addition to the check-in, we’ve built technology that allows us to understand not only where someone is, but we also understand when someone stopped. This is powerful, because when you stop at a place, there is intent. You walk to a place and you’re there. … Just because you walked by a place doesn’t mean that you intended to go there. We have intent. Our goal is to provide great experiences for our consumers, but we built that magic technology that allows us to snap a consumer in place whether they check-in or not. That allows us to have a lot of additional data that is beyond the check-in.
In addition to that, we get a lot of signal back from our partners. We get a lot of signal back when someone calls our API (latitude/longitude, timestamp, things like that), that’s tethered to the place. We have people checking in more than ever, but we have lots of signal that we get that allows us to understand that someone was at this particular place at this particular time. And when you do it for seven years and you have all this data, and you’ve built a map of the world the way that phones use the world, you can do some really powerful stuff.
Are people more comfortable sharing their location than they used to be?
I think that’s the beautiful thing about our products — they’re all opt-in and people trust us. And that’s because we provide a great experience. Our apps aren’t really that useful if you don’t have mobile location-sharing on. There’s lots of things the consumer can do to hide their location; you don’t have to publicly push your check-in; we give our users a lot of different ways if they don’t want to share their location externally. But the value of it — the ability for us to make great recommendations or know where your friends are, or life-log, or make the world fun and interesting — all comes from the fact that you want to share your locations so that you can get the value.
Several years ago, Foursquare had focused on some ways to help small businesses understand their consumers. Is that still a part of what you’re offering?
We have a self-service ad business for SMBs, but we don’t really focus on SMBs. Frankly, that was a while ago.
We have a robust media business that is exploding, and that is really off of a product called Pinpoint. And Pinpoint is our ability to use that magic, that secret sauce, our ability to understand location, but apply it outside of Foursquare. … There’s a lot of location data out there, and most of it is not very good; most of it is not usable. But we are able to make sense of that and then turn the location that is usable into a place. And so we’ve now mapped nearly 100 million devices in the U.S. alone, where we’re able to basically connect Fortune 100 and [Fortune] 500 marketers with consumer segments based on where consumers go in the real world. So if you’re trying to reach coffee drinkers, then we’re going to find you all of the devices that we know have been at Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, and your mom-and-pop coffee shop over the last month or the last six months. Or if you want to reach a business traveler, we know where we see phones that are in hotels and airports, and you can tell that they’re traveling frequently.
And there’s no noise there, unlike desktop digital — because just because you land on a website doesn’t mean there’s intent in your cookies. In the real world, if you go someplace, there’s intent — [most people] don’t go a lot of places.
Where do you see Foursquare moving in the next three years?
I think there’s a huge, huge, huge industry around location intelligence and real-world foot traffic data. We’ve got a media business, and we’ve got marketers, we’ve got consumer segments, and we built the measurement product Attribution to help measure marketing effectiveness — so no matter what digital marketing you’re running, we can help you understand if that advertising is driving people into physical stores. There’s a huge gap in research where no one understands if someone’s been in a physical store. There’s companies that supply credit card data, there’s fluffy brand awareness and purchase intent — but we actually can tell the marketer if someone was exposed to an ad, did they go into a store.
We have our developer platform where we’re working with some of the biggest companies in the world, Apple Microsoft, Samsung, Pinterest, Twitter, Tencent, Uber. And we have our Place Insights business. I think our plate is pretty full and we’re going to continue to evolve and build better experiences for our customers, and teach them how to apply everything that we’re doing.
In 2016 and beyond, it’ll be devices that we wear and carry in our pocket. How to best leverage all this really useful information the same way we did in the online world — but now in a much bigger scale because most of the economy happens offline.
Is the focus on attribution about unlocking advertisers that are sitting on the side, who need proof that their marketing dollars are well-spent before committing?
You ask any CMO, the biggest pain point for them is “how do we know if our advertising works?” That’s been the case forever, and even more so now when everyone is being scrutinized to figure out if the money they spend is actually working. There are tens of billions of dollars being spent digitally — if it drives actual people into a place where their products are sold, that’s hugely valuable.
Frankly, there’s a need out there and marketing effectiveness is a massive industry. … We want to help companies figure out if it’s worth it. How do we help them learn about their customers, how do we help them reach consumers that they need for their business, and how do we help them measure.
David Hirschman is a co-founder at Street Fight. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.