On my friend Nigel's recommendation, I've been experimenting with Foursquare for a few days. He and some others think it's the "next big thing," Based on my initial impression, I have my doubts and a number of thoughts about how it can become better.
For those of you who aren't familiar with it, Foursquare is a social networking utility that allows you to check in at local establishments, post your location to your FaceBook and Twitter feeds. (Out of respect for all my friends whose feeds are already full of stuff they don't care about, I've declined to do this).
I first became aware of it due to the clutter it was creating in my Facebook feed, which led me to quickly block the application from posting anything there. Realistically, I don't much care about where a couple of friends of mine, most of whom are elsewhere in the world, have "checked in" in the past few minutes. In fact, I don't much care where most of the people in my immediate neighborhood are unless I'm trying to avoid them, but that's probably just me.
As you check in in different places you accumulate points and "badges" for various things. If you are the most frequent visitor to an establishment, you are declared the "mayor" and reputedly some places are giving the "mayor" special benefits.
It seems to work reasonably well, though the iPhone app seems to have a tough time sometimes pulling up the appropriate list of businesses even when it has my location right. Yesterday it showed me every single business in sight, except for the Starbucks I was standing in front of, or at a later point, the Car Wash whose lot I was standing in. As a result, I've noticed that some people have added businesses to the list that are already there, creating some confusion. My local Vietnamese place, for example, is listed twice. I suspect this is the kind of thing that will get sorted out over time, but for now it's pretty annoying.
The biggest problem I have right now is that even with only a handful of friends using it, I've had to block it. If I didn't, my entire Facebook and Twitter feeds would be overwhelmed with people trying to game the Foursquare points system by checking in everywhere all the time. Or to put it in other words, FourSquare has already become a lot of useless spam: lots of information about stupid things like who is at what gas station or car wash, with small amounts of relevant information about who is doing the things I care about in places I'm likely to see them.
A second problem is that the businesses I tend to frequent most are rather cool to the idea. I'm likely to quickly become mayor of my local bar & grill type place (at least unless somebody else jumps in quickly), but it's not likely to mean much. The owner already makes it a point to know his customers and I already get my share of freebies, special offers, etc. Not because I poke my head in the door 5 or 6 nights a week (which I do) and check in on a social networking utility, but rather because he knows how much I spend, how well I tip, whether I bring in friends, make trouble, etc. He likes the fact that I'm president of the UCLA Anderson Alumni Network in Los Angeles and host a happy for with 20-30 MBAs with expensive tastes in Vodka every couple of months. He likes the fact that I'll regularly buy the better wines. He likes the fact that I tend to come in during the slow periods on weeknights and stay away when it's crowded.
Foursquare conveys none of this richness. By their way of counting, my friend "Fred" wasn't much of a customer. He came in a lot less than me and many of the other regulars. Even if he recorded his visits, he'd probably be far behind me. But he was the kind of guy who always bought bottles from the top end of the wine list. By one account I heard, he spent in excess of $30K there last year! Who would you rather have, one "Fred" or 100 guys who come in every three times a week after work, buy a beer and leave? I know who the owners of this place would like. Foursquare's system gives you the opposite answer.
The reality, of course, is that large numbers of businesses don't care about this. The distribution of expenditure by customers at a coffee house or a more limited bar is probably fairly narrow. The guy who comes in to Starbucks most often is likely to be one of the best customers because you just don't have a situation where some customers are spending one hundred times more per visit than others. Even then, I say "one of the best" because the person who shows up for an expensive Frappucino-type drink and pastry 3 days a week is probably contributing more to the bottom line than a guy who gets a plain cup of coffee every morning,, but the "mayor" will most certainly be somewhere near the top in terms of profitability.
Another issue is that while Foursquare makes it easiest to "check in" at businesses that are close to your physical location, it does not seem to have any way to block you from checking in at anyplace you happen to pass. Walking down Ventura Blvd yesterday, I could have checked in at hundreds of businesses in the course of an hour or so. There doesn't seem to be any way for them to block this, and in fact they reward you for checking in more. This strikes me as being quite prone to a new version of "click fraud." Check in at everyplace you poke your head into, or even just pass by. If you reward people for checking in, this is what you'll get and the results will quickly become meaningless.
A final problem occurred to me because at least part of my background is in the service business, and in that business the dynamic of customer-contacts vs. profitability if often far more complex. If you're selling stuff, the person who comes in most often is likely to be among your best customers. If you're servicing it, the person who comes in most frequently is either one of your best customers or one of your most problematic. Think of a car service business for example? Is the person who checks in every two weeks your best customer, a perfectionist who will pay to have every minor detail repaired right away, or your worst, the one who always can find something wrong with the previous repair and demand that you re-repair it? If you're running a cellphone store, the customer who comes in every week is almost certainly your worst nightmare!
Rather than dwelling on the negative though, a few thoughts on how this service needs to improve, especially if it wants to gain traction where I live:
- Sort out the problems with showing me the right list of establishments close to me. When I'm standing at 15030 Ventura Blvd, and the Foursquare iPhone app has figured out my location correctly, and I've refreshed the list of businesses near me, it should not fail to note that the closest business is the Starbucks right in front of me. I actually had to search for that one, and the reality is that if it's difficult, I'm not likely to check in. Likewise, when I'm standing at 1401 Abbot Kinney, do not show me B&B hardware as an option. It's miles away...
- Clean up the data. Lots of duplication, probably in part because the lists that come up are incomplete are wrong so people add their own, either incorrectly or by duplicating things. For example, Abbot's Habit and Abbot's Habbit Venice coexist and create confusion, even for me. B&B Hardware, cited above, shows up in the wrong location.
- A great way to do this would be to allow users to recommend updates/changes. There seems to be no way to do that right now. Once an establishment is added, it seems to stay there. Give me a button to report an incorrect address or a duplicate listing. For that matter, give me a button to suggest changes to categories and other information that may be wrong. A voting system of some sort would be great. [Update: I found the place to report a bad address, though it remains to be seen how soon anybody acts on it. The iPhone app doesn't make it obvious, but it is there. I still have no idea what to do about duplicates.]
- Think about how to prevent fraud by users who check in to every place whose storefront they happen to look at. How many check-ins in an hour is reasonable? I'm not sure, but I am sure that if they don't get a handle on this fast, the service will be quickly overwhelmed by those who are just seeking to gain points.
- Figure out a way for me to filter stuff, or at least to embed tags so that I can filter it. As Clay Shirky stated rather eloquently in his book Here Comes Everybody, we now live in a world of "publish then filter." But the "filter" part is key if something's going to be useful. I don't care where Nigel bought gas today. In fact, most of the time I don't care what he's doing at all as I'm usually 800 miles away. Even among my local friends there are updates I care about and updates I don't. If Foursquare devolves into me receiving hundreds of updates a day with no ability to filter them automatically, it'll become useless rather quickly.
- Consider multiple categories. My local bar & grill place is both a good restaurant (mostly before 9:30) and a great bar (mostly after). However you categorize it, if there's only one category it'll be wrong for about half the people coming in.
- For better traction with certain types of businesses, it would be great to figure out a way to collect more information about the customers and reward them accordingly. This isn't a huge concern for some places, but if your business mixes $5 customers and $500 customers, it's not only important, but probably the most important thing you could know. For those businesses the most frequent customer may be a "nice to know" and not much more than that. A linkup with a service like blippy that could help you find out what as well as who could be helpful if you could convince people to participate. Realistically though, I suspect no social networking utility will ever do this well, as the people at the $500 level are probably the least inclined to share that information and also the ones who are most likely to demand that the service and attention be personal, not formula-driven.
I'm going to continue to experiment with it, and may even make Mayor at a couple of places around town, but the service's inherent spamminess bothers me. For now, I've excluded it from any of my feeds because I KNOW my friends mostly won't care about all the little stuff I do all day long and frankly don't feel a need to broadcast it. Hopefully, as they grow they get a handle on this, or even better they already have strategies n place but are choosing not to put in too many restrictions or filters while the service is still in its infancy.
While I think location-based services are going to be big, I'm not convinced that this one is the "next big thing." My impressions are quite early and likely to change as I get to know the service better.