Checking In on Foursquare Marketing Opportunities

Over the past several months, I’ve loaded up my iPhone and iPad with the latest location-based services applications to better understand how these services can help marketers further leverage the emerging local/social/mobile space.

Today we’ll focus on the “check-in” space and, more specifically, Foursquare.

For the folks unfamiliar with this genre, check-in apps are mobile social-gaming applications that provide users with the opportunity to share their location with their friends and blend the experience into a game-like environment where people compete for badges or stamps. This is accomplished by earning points for their total number of check-ins, for checking in to the same place repeatedly, or for checking in to many places in a single night. In Foursquare, the user who checks in to the same “place” the most times becomes the “mayor” of that specific place.

As users continue to use the service, they’re rewarded with additional badges, which creates a competition between friends to see who has visited the most places. The below screen capture shows some of the badges and categories that are awarded.

As an example of one of my latest earned badges; last week, I needed to board a plane back from the West Coast in the wee hours of the morning and Foursquare awarded me the “School Night” badge for checking in after 3 a.m. on a school night. When I was younger, I would have been proud of my accomplishment of an “all nighter”; now I just get cranky at having to be up so early.

From a users’ benefit perspective, Foursquare allows users to write “tips” for restaurants, bars, retail stores, and other places they check in to for most of its 15-month existence. This information tends to be a loose form of ratings and reviews on the location, helping users narrow their selections based on these tips.

In addition to your friends who subscribe to these apps viewing your whereabouts, via Facebook Connect, pretty much all of your Facebook friends or Twitter followers can track your every move, meal, and resting place.

Cute, but What Does This Mean for Marketers?

While it’s still early in the game, Foursquare has taken a leadership position with 1.7 million users, up from about 750,000 in March, according to Dennis Crowley, co-founder and chief executive of Foursquare.

Recently, we’ve begun seeing advertising featured in some geographies hinting at a potential monetization strategy:

To date, however, these ads have been limited to geographic targeting. In the case illustrated above, I checked in to a hotel in New York City and was promoted with a special offer for a moving company – not the best targeting. Conversely, Starbucks has been running an offer of a discounted drink for anyone who becomes a mayor of one of its locations, which seems to be a much more logical promotion for the service.

For marketers, my advice is start with the basics – your business listing. One major issue with services like Foursquare is their listings database. While there appears to be a limited database of business locations that it has purchased from one of the business-entity database providers, many of the listings are user-generated content.

For example, if you search for a place that you’re about to check in at and you don’t see it on the list of places nearby, you’re promoted to add that specific business or place. This has led to many duplicate and miscategorized listings.

So, the first best practice is: search for your business and ensure that the physical location address and additional details are correct. Second: monitor any dialogue about your business to see if there are ways to leverage this information to improve your business or offering. Third: if your business category is very developed, consider a trial offer to see if it moves the sales needle.

Crowded Market?

Foursquare may have the early lead, but trust me; there are many other check-in applications (e.g., Gowalla, Brightkite, Loopt, Booyah), as well as other media trying to join the check-in craze. Here’s a quick glimpse of the big players in the space and Foursquare’s attempts to stay ahead of the game., typically known for its exceptional user ratings and reviews, now features a check-in feature for its users.

  • Foursquare, to compete with the likes of, is now putting more emphasis on user reviews of restaurants, bars, retail spaces, and other places.

Twitter, known for its 140-character status updates, now offers geo-targeting and local place pages where you can find others in the near vicinity.

  • Foursquare, to compete with Twitter, now offers 140-character status updates to go along with the check-ins.

Facebook has yet to come out with a check-in feature, but has announced that it will offer location-based services soon.

In the final analysis, I’ll be interested to see how this space continues to develop. Honestly, it seems like a great feature to add into a more developed social/local platform.

Interestingly, there’s been a lot of press recently that Foursquare is seeking funding to develop its business as a standalone after rumors of interest from Facebook and Yahoo. Only time will tell if users find value in the service and sharing their movements.

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Website landing page vector graphic
Hand holding smartphone with city map and store location on screen and store icon.