Five steps to fix Foursquare

It’s been about a year since I wrote anything significant about Foursquare so I thought it was time to check-in.

Check-in. Get it? Oh, never mind.

In my article, Foursquare or Bore-square, I concluded that the major hurdle to adoption of this technology is that there just isn’t anything there to hold my attention, entertain me, or reward me.  The primary attraction of fake electronic mayorships will appeal to a small audience indeed.  A year later, I am puzzled to report they still have the same problem.

The good news is that in the past year they have significantly enhanced their interface, added some modest new features, and raised enough capital to stay in business and dominate the buzz.

The bad news is, I still really have no new reasons to use it. The reviews and tips are nice, but there are other apps like Urban Spoon that do a better job and are more fun to use. I did find a friend at a restaurant through Foursquare once and he bought me a beer, so that’s worth something I guess.

Foursquare seems determined to stary boring. They just announced that a new infusion of capital would be used to expand overseas. Cool.  Now we can be bored in several new languages.  And this week’s big announcement:  People will be able to create their own pages to leave tips for friends. ZZZzzzz.

I understand the need to move quickly and dominate the niche but it seems they are ignoring some very fundamental improvements they could make to really drive organic growth. Until Foursquare adds some sizzle that will appeal to people beyond the Geek Squad, it will remain a minor player in the social media world.  Here are five ideas to make it more interesting:

1) Put your people on the ground.  Forget about spending your money in Europe. Use the money to get sales people in major cities to work with restaurants and retail to offer more opportunities for engagement and deals. I am a consistent user of Foursquare wherever I travel and have never been offered one attractive offer.  That’s just pitiful.  Foursquare needs to learn from Groupon and put people in cities to make something happen for their users.

2) Add some fun. The leaderboard thing is lame. Foursquare has all the elements of a fun and competitive environment but who cares about the results when there are no prizes?  I mean they don’t even have FAKE prizes like “Hey, you just reached an all-time high. You’ve unlocked the too much time on your hands badge.”  When I have an “achievement,” I want to see one of the Angry Birds dancing  on the screen or Conan O’Brien revealing a surprise.  Maybe do movie tie-ins.  Partner with SCVNGR so we can unlock secrets created by Foursquare users (geo-caching?).  Why not have competitions to crown a city champion? Why not have playoffs among friends?  Bring it on.

3) Put people who game the system in a penalty box.  I check-in pretty frequently at a local restaurant but never seemed to be close to becoming mayor. Found out it was a guy who works there. Well, that just ruins the whole point. That is not building loyalty. That is not rewarding customers.  Now I know it is POSSIBLE that somebody is actually visiting every day, so create new categories like super-mayor and vice mayors and governors so you can push people who are possibly gaming the system aside to allow real money-spending customers to be engaged and rewarded.

4) Involve the establishments.  I have never had any establishment manager acknowledge I was in the house.  You know, that might even be better than a prize.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a manager come up to you and say, “Mr. Schaefer, I saw you checked-in on Foursquare and I just wanted to thank you for visiting us today.” This is not happening. Why not?  If the locations are not getting value out of the system the model is busted.

5) Make it more social. Foursquare is still so obscure that I really don’t have a lot of friends around when I go to a restaurant. Or, maybe I just don’t have many friends period … in any event, on the rare occasion somebody enters the restaurant when I am there, it would be fun to have an alert.  Why can’t we mark our very special friends so we can get very special alerts when they are nearby?  And egads … what would happen if we were actually rewarded with free food and goodies for bringing a lot of our friends together and all checking in?  Restaurants and pubs are sponsoring tweet-ups but why aren’t … ummm … Four-ups (?) … catching on?

OK Foursquare. Based on my current consulting rate, that is about 23 cents of advice. Which is 23 cents more value than what you have given to me, by the way. Other than the beer of course. That was cool.

So now it’s up to them … and you, of course. What would you do if you were the Mayor of Foursquare?

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  • John Bottom

    Hey Mark

    Hmmm. Foursquare. I can’t believe this is still widely seen as the geo-location example to follow when it misses so many tricks. You’re absolutely right – except about the point of not investing in Europe. What about us, eh?

    And another thing – the more you use Foursquare, the more richness of archive ‘journey’ data you build up. What’s the harm in allowing us to play with that? A heatmap or something. It’s our data after all. Foursquare could be doing all manner of things with it that they’re not telling us – so why not let us at it? Or maybe this exists and the failing is that no one at Foursquare has bothered to tell me.

  • Ah Mark, I had already avoided FourSquare (as a consumer); your post has helped me maintain that outlook. 🙂 I wonder if the model has problems not only because of the reasons you mention but because 1) there is a very limited market (many people don’t want social media to find them when they are out) and 2) because of that they are unable to reach the critical mass that allows for a social network to be enjoyable/useful (your restaurant problem?).

    I would be curious how the {grow} community sees it, as it probably represents a group that is highly skewed towards SM early adopters. How many joined 4S because they felt they had to know about it? How many dropped off using it? I see fewer check-ins in my Twitter stream than I did 3 mos ago, though that could be people just turning that feature off.

    On the business side, I will say the longer 4S waits to create an attractive value proposition, the more chance of G+ and Facebook making them irrelevant.

  • Paul Swansen

    #3 is spot on.  There is an employee of a Big Box Electronic Store who always checks in at his work.  He’s not purposely gaming the system, but simply using it.  He’s at work so much that unless a customer is there as much as he is,he’s a lock. 

    #4 a great idea.   Best Buy has, Shopkick their own LBS, shopping system.  Why not partner with them?

  • My gf and I checked out (not ‘in’) a restaurant for the first time on Saturday. It was a Filipino restaurant that my partner said is very popular back home in Manila. It was about an hour’s drive away, I planned my route on Google maps.

    The place was crowded with family gatherings and the manager made a point of stopping by each table and introducing himself and welcoming everyone to the restaurant. That was very impressive. In fact he came back to our table later on and we had a very pleasant chat about various things.

    The incredible thing is that all of this was done without Foursquare. It was as if it could all just run on natural human energy. Certainly some younger people had their heads tilted down to their iPhones – but they didn’t seem to belong there. It was as if they were avoiding conversations with their aunties.

    So as far as Foursquare is concerned – could it be a cure looking for a disease?


  • I never became mayor of anywhere I checked in, and I checked into a few places daily, sometimes 2x a day. Employees checking in makes sense. Lame though…

    I like your #1 suggestion. If they go that route just be sure to not get sued like Yelp did 🙂 Other than that I somewhat disagree with the boring part. Here’s why…

    One thing I miss being here in Thailand is having my iPhone connected to a cell phone network. For me it would be fun to check into places, or at least see if I could. As part of the “people share way too much information all the time” thinking Foursquare fits into that. Okay I didn’t explain that well but what it comes down to is that we (humans) have egos and some of us like sharing all the details of our lives. I know my wife thinks I put too much online (sshh don’t tell her I’m talking about her here :). So some people just want to share.

  • I joined 4S way before I even had a smartphone and dumped it quickly when I realized it was no good to me because of that fact. But, even as a non-user, I feel I can pipe into the conversation here and add some things.

    First of all, I think they need to get a handle on where and how people can check-in. I have seen check-ins to highways that just seems completely wacky to me. Anyone else? I have also seen people physically walk down a street in Boston and check-in to every single location they pass. Is this fair? Seems kind of silly to me.

    Radioshack did something last holiday that provided incentives to people who checked-in via 4S. The idea was to visit and check-in hoping to be the 1000th check-in or something like that and you get something free or a huge discount. Good way to connect the network, get some traffic and work in a group check-in model (Groupon) towards a common goal.

  • Jen Zingsheim

    Foursquare never really captured my attention or interest. I have no desire to be the mayor of anyplace, I suppose I’m just not that competitive to care much.

    On the last #measurePR, there was discussion about Klout integrating Foursquare results into one’s Klout score. I couldn’t (and still don’t) see the connection between influence and check-ins. Check-ins denote frequency of attendance, and linking them to Klout seems to move Klout away from measuring anything close to influence, and instead reinforces the notion that they score online activity.

    I bring this up because your point #5–specifically “egads … what would happen if we were actually rewarded with free food and
    goodies for bringing a lot of our friends together and all checking in?”–actually *would* be a measure of actual influence. Something for both Foursquare AND Klout to think about.

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  • Great points.

    My mayorships have never been worth anything. One “first time checkin” got me $3 worth of free product at a local farmers’ market. Two years in, I still fail to see the point.

    And basic usability. I check in at three places all the time – my favorite beer bar, a local brew-pub, and the market. At least once a week each. And yet, I have to search for them. EVERY TIME. It lists 25 other places that are within my GPS range. The ones I actually use are never on the list of choices.

  • I steered clear of 4S for a long time.  I had no interest in competing for mayorships or badges that meant nothing to me.  But when I started looking at 4S as a tool that my clients could use, I figured it would be irresponsible for me to recommend they use it without having any hands-on experience with it myself.  I agree with a lot of your points, but especially #4.  There is a lot of potential for businesses to benefit from 4S, but it has a long way to go.  As a consumer, I actually enjoy pulling out my phone and looking for deals when I am somewhere new and don’t know where to go.  However, I am continuously disappointed to find so few deals.  As a small business owner, the tools are not very useful.  It would be great to get notified when people are checking in to my business, but the way it currently is, with so many people not having photos for avatars, it can be very difficult to figure out who the person is in the restaurant.   Social media tools should help business owners connect to their customers both online and in-person.  This is one areaI think 4S is really missing the mark.

  • I can’t agree with you more. I have tried countlessly to “get into” it with no avail. If more deals were offered I would definitely be more inclined to use it. 

  • Of course my friend they should invest in Europe … but not until it is worthy for your consumption!

    There actually is a way to do that but I don’t know if it is through another app or what. I actually had a conversation with Robert Scoble last week and he mentioned that he had access to a check-in history on Foursquare. Of course he’s on the cutting edge of ideas and I’m not. : )

  • Certainly FB already has that capability of geo-location and is gunning for 4S. I also heard that they patented FS’s technology but I don;t know if that is true or not.  I agree with you that there are serious privacy concerns with Foursquare. I don’t want my kids using it.

  • Thanks for the feedback Paul.

  • Love that perspective.  I love personal attention at a restaurant — not to be confused with five  different people interrupting my evening every five minutes to ask me if everything is OK. 

    Actually, a manager asked me that the other day and I told him that truthfully, the meal sucked. He just got a blank look on his face and walked away. Did nothing about it. Earned him my very first Foursquare flamer.  : )

  • I am not in that category but I celebrate you and our wonderful human diversity!! : )

  • Great insights Christina!  I’ve also seen that highway thing.  Thanks!

  • Yup.  I think that is where it is heading. Foursquare is probably a leading indicator of offline behavior.  If you could connect online content with offline behavior …  quite interesting don’t you think?

  • Wow that is an interesting point.  You’re right about that searching thing. Even when I’m sitting in the place.  Thanks so much for jumping in with a comment today Angelos!

  • Yes, I got into it for the same reason Adam. You have to immerse yourself in this stuff to really learn it. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment today.

  • Nice to see you inthe comment section Rachel. Thanks!

  • I think we now have the blueprint for Foursquare’s replacement

  • Mark, have you tried Yelp? It has the best of both worlds with checkins (although I find it wonky- always based on the cell tower rather than the location)

  • That’s hilarious!  🙂

  • The biggest pitfall of foursquare is that not enough businesses are using it. If almost all your local restaurants were active and had specials, it would probably be a lot more fun, right? But because most places don’t even know how to set up a special, let alone monitor it and see who is there at that time, it’s just not working. The tool itself is actually pretty awesome, but like anything, it takes the  users to make it really work right.

  • Love your post Mark. This goes for Facebook Places and Gowalla. No one is checking in. I keep going to really crowded places and see number of check in’s total…forever to this date….less than 1/4 a day’s worth of customers. So everyone is bored.

    I don’t know the solutions you have some great advice for them. The question is always for say a Bar or Restaurant you have to be on Yelp!, CitySearch, Urban Spoon, FourSquare, Gowalla, Whirrl, Where, Places + more and it is hard to have such a diluted marketplace all offering similar boring experiences.

    The second part is does this type of platform become just a margin killer? I like number 4 because there is no margin effect.

  • Thanks for the suggestion – I’ll make sure it’s included in the thinking.
    P.S: Amazing picture..

  • I work at a utility and I think Foursquare has wonderful application to report power outages.

  • Interesting idea! 

  • I have tried it, but need to use it a little more. Always great to see you in the comment section Todd! 

  • This is a really good point Kirsten.  Kind of gets back to my point about getting people on the ground.  I’ve had some experience with the restaurant business ans they are generally not creative marketers, nor empowered at the right level to make decisions to offer deals at the spur of the moment.  An engima, but also an opportunity for the places that can adjust! 

  • There needs to be a consolidation.  Too many players isn’t there Howie?  Somebody needs to buy somebody.

  • I think if Fourquare were to put people on the ground it would help accomplish 2 through 4. Making the service appear more social in the user’s will be the company’s biggest challenge.

  • Wow, now that Would make Foursquare fun!  I play too, but only do it because social media is my field and I feel I should be well versed in what is out there.  

    One fun thing that did come out of me playing was lululemon, one of my mayorships, found me on Twitter and gave me shout-out asking what my first plan of action as the mayor would be.  Having the places you check-in to interact with you does make it more rewarding

  • I think if they just make it WORTHWHILE beyond geekdom they will take a big leap forward.  I hope their investors are following this comment stream.

  • That is very cool.  See, that could make the whole thing so fun!!!  I am the mayor of a bank and when I walk in, they greet me as the mayor. Then they all left and nobody knows me there any more. They have no idea what it even is. 

  • Yes I agree. Can you find us some capital? I actually see the stand alone’s outlasting Facebook. It is much easier to take say a foursquare and buy them and integrate them into something bigger, than when Facebook dies to peel off Places and integrate that into something.

    I actually think long term Google is going to be the winner. They have Maps, GPS, Search, and Shopping platforms they could integrate.

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  • I think the review component on it is much like urbanspoon and others but about as open as the google place listings and less duplicated as 4SQ

  • Hi Mark,

    Great post and it’s refreshing to see creative concepts about how a brand can become better rather than creating link bait on what a brand or it’s competitors are already doing.

    I liked the article so much I sent on to a few contacts at Foursquare and got the following:

    “Thanks very much Luca for your interest in foursquare and

    We will make sure to take a look and pass along any feedback
    to our product team that is helpful.


     While there’s no guarantee these ideas will be implemented, at least you know they will be considered.

    Good work mate

  • Ha!  Great!  I would LOVE to have Foursquare comment!

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  • I use it just to track my family, it is nice to know where your teen daughter is a sat at 2am 🙂
    I  personally enjoy more gowalla, but is not as pop as 4sq

  • It’s on my phone. I check-in when I’m out and about (if I remember). It doesn’t offer an awful alot although in synching with your Twitter account you might in theory get to connect with people you know or in fact haven’t yet met. Otherwise, it’s a bit of a timewaster…isn’t it? Useful post as ever Mark.

  • I love the expression Bore-square

    Kind regards from Germany


  • And here I thought I was the only one. I check-in very often too but have never been offered one attractive offer. In fact, I come across tons of silly ones such as “Loyalty Special: Get a Free Orange Juice after 5 check-ins” at a buffet restaurant. 
    I think most establishments don’t see Foursquare as an important tool just yet. In fact, I would be amazed if they think Twitter and Facebook are for them especially where I’m at. 

  • Michael Fraietta

    Sorry, Mark, but this post sucks.

    In the last three cities that I’ve lived in (Boulder, CO, Toronto and NYC) Foursquare has been my best friend in getting acclimated to what’s around me and connecting with like-minds in the area. Every time a local would suggest a great place to go, I was already aware of that park/bar/restaurant/annual event because of Foursquare. The Explore option is the where Google is going with social search and I use it daily. How else would I find gluten-free option that’s .2 miles away for a friend visiting within seconds? 

    Tips are great if there are users, and I suppose I’ve been living and travelling to high-usage areas. There’s usually a hundred or so at many places in NYC and the popular ones (of my friends) makes it easy to know what’s good and FAST. I travel quite a bit and don’t see a hundred tips at every venue but enough to make the quick decision (Bonapp makes it even quicker; below). 

    Here are 5 additional apps built on Foursquare’s API that I find extremely useful:

    If you want an in-depth look of how I use foursquare API to connect to like-mined individuals in my area, it’s here

    Sorry for links, I could care less about traffic, just want share my point in more depth.

    I am joking that this post “sucks”, you bring up some very valid suggestions. I just thought the comments needed a shakeup. 

    Mike Fraietta

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  • i agree with everything you say here. 4sq has a lot of potential but it hasnt used any of it. there’s no reason to use foursquare, period. it’s stagnant.

  • Thanks for the comment Jason.

  • Amazing write-up! This could aid plenty of people find out more about this particular issue. Are you keen to integrate video clips coupled with these? It would absolutely help out. Your conclusion was spot on and thanks to you; I probably won’t have to describe everything to my pals. I can simply direct them here!

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