I think I “get” Foursquare.  I really do.

I understand there could be significant business benefits and opportunities to build customer loyalty.

But I really wonder if Foursquare can reach critical mass to be a widespread consumer social media platform. To find out, I conducted  …

The World’s Greatest Foursquare Experiment.

In fact, it might be the world’s only Foursquare experiment : )

The much-hyped Foursquare is similar to Twitter in that you provide short status reports based on your geographic location.  As you visit more businesses and “check-in,” you can earn virtual “badges” and become “mayor” of a location.  You can also find friends, see reviews, ads, and coupons from nearby businesses.

I decided to give it a rigorous test by trying it in a village (Abingdon, VA) a small city (Knoxville, TN) and a metroplex (New York City) over a period of six weeks. I’ll provide my bias upfront: I’m concerned that people are becoming de-sensitized to the information they are feeding into “the machine” and should draw the line at reporting personal location and behavior patterns.  However, I’m starting to get Foursquare questions from my students and realized I needed to give it a fair shot. So I did…

Early buzz

The interface was easy to figure out.  Pulling out my smart phone became habitual as I was eager to earn badges and see what the hype was about.

The first problem was that it became annoying to me, and whoever I was with, when I fumbled around connecting to Foursquare at each location. The app doesn’t always know precisely where you are. In a “medium” town like Knoxville, I usually received a list of 10 nearby businesses and could easily select my location. However in the small village, about half of the businesses did not exist on the grid so I had to manually enter my spot. In NYC I had just the opposite problem. Can you imagine the number of suggested spots I had to scroll through while standing on a corner of Park Ave.?

Umm… Who the hell are you?

When I joined Foursquare, I started getting friend requests from dozens of random people including the city of Reading, PA.  Not knowing any better, I accepted them. Now, if I report where I am, I’m letting a lot of complete strangers know my whereabouts. In hindsight, I was not too bright with this move.

Call me Mr. Mayor

One part of the experiment was becoming a mayor. I wanted to see what happened when you were crowned king of a location.  This happened fairly quickly when I was the first Foursquare visitor to a local barbecue joint. “How sad. This location has no mayor” it reported.  So the next day I went back and became the mayor. Great for the restaurant but what did I get out of it? An electronic award. Hmmm.

Gaming the system

Did you know if you walk down the street you can check-in at every location you pass?

True value

I had heard some cool stories about people getting instant coupons upon entering a location. This never happened to me.

I did get a few on-the-spot restaurant menu recommendations but they were from strangers so it didn’t mean too much.

Finally near the end of the month I actually saw that a Foursquare friend (and somebody I knew!) was in the same location as me. That was pretty cool but since I was at a family celebration, I really didn’t want to interact and hoped they wouldn’t come by.

I think the biggest benefit of this service could be finding friends at a conference in a big city. I saw the app used this way extensively at SXSW and it makes sense.

The balance of cost versus reward

During the experiment, I had tweeted out some of my experiences and concerns, especially about privacy. One friend suggested that I simply turn-off the online reporting function … meaning I wouldn’t connect with friends, wouldn’t be alerted to deals, but still could earn badges. Huh?

Am I really doing this to earn electronic badges? Is that enough reward for me to continue using this application? No, I don’t think so.

While Foursquare could be a potential goldmine for businesses, it holds very little tangible value to consumers right now … at least in my experience. But that will undoubtedly change. In fact it HAS to change.   For this to really take off beyond the geek circles, it has to offer much more value to consumers than the silliness being delivered now.

I’ll continue to use this selectively so I can stay on top of continued innovations and benefits but I don’t see it becoming part of my regular social media diet.

And by the way …

I still have my concern.  Why are we helping the crooks do their jobs by providing our location and teaching them our buying behaviors?

I guess people will do anything for a coupon?

{grow} community alert: Gregg Morris did a great job expanding on these Foursquare ideas in his blog post

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