And so another personal venture into the new is complete. Following in the footsteps of services such as Second Life and Pointcast, I have now decided that Foursquare is no longer for me. It has gone down a personal “hype cycle” in my life–going from interesting to integral to ignoble in just a few months. Where once I was checking in with glee and sharing my whereabouts with new collections of friends, now I’m moving on with life and onto Facebook Places. My personal journey is one that others have also reported, and I think a look into why Foursquare worked for a while, and how others continue to be a part of my life, shows a path to meaningful platforms.
What I Loved About Foursquare
I got into Foursquare big-time back in March 2010 during the annual SXSW event. I attended with a small group of Bridge people and we had fun checking into new places and tracking each other’s locations around Austin. I was immediately attracted by the fact that you could walk into a restaurant and find a digital trace of other people who had been there in the months, days, or minutes before. The app allowed me to share my experience with Facebook friends and Twitter followers, and I was delighted by the chance to earn fun badges. And as a digital marketer I also saw firsthand the promise of location-based services.
Over time I tried to build Foursquare into my routine around town. I would meet people for a drink at a bar and excuse myself to check in, and I would dutifully add new locations to the service in order to “get credit” for my appearance. As a digital marketing consultant, I also began to speak glowingly of the possibilities of this new service
Where It Fell Apart
But soon the bloom came off the Foursquare rose for me. The first negative came in my attempt to work with the company on behalf of some of our very large clients. Phone calls went unanswered and scheduled phone calls ended with me sitting on the line waiting for their side to pick up. I quietly advised my teams and clients to wait until the company got its act together before we went further down this road. As a user, I also started doubting the value of this once-cool toy. I began to hear stories of people getting burglarized when they were not home, and my wife wondered why I was telling the world when I was out of town and she and my girls were alone. The “Honey, I need to understand what’s new in digital because it’s my job” excuse goes only so far, especially when there is no real utility in Foursquare at the end of the day.
And here we come to the real issue: There is no clear reason to install and use Foursquare. It is a toy that entertains for a few days or weeks, but at the end of the day there is no reason to make this a habit. Hardly any stores or restaurants pay attention to the service by, say, offering free offers with check-ins. The mayorships and badges seem silly after a while. And your friends tend to get tired of seeing where in the world you are.
Meanwhile, Facebook has come into location services with something that works much better. You can utilize your current friends list rather than starting from scratch with a new network, and check-ins can link directly to the Facebook pages of where you happen to be. Stores and restaurants can do marketing on their Facebook pages and offer information or special deals. Foursquare is still figuring out how to build a business and service users and marketers. But Facebook has this down already.
The Lesson: What New Apps Need to Succeed
In looking at a wide range of new digital services, I believe some patterns begin to develop. And the biggest one that I see right now, across everything from mobile apps to social media services, is that success comes in degrees based on whether the new company has the following:
- The Toy Factor — When people can download your app, try something new, and show their friends you have yourself a great “toy.” Foursquare is a toy. It has novelty, a link to the real world, and some games including the chance to earn badges. This is enough for people to download and play with for a few days or weeks, but it won’t last forever. The gang at Foursquare is still keynoting conferences and now has some investment dollars, but I believe the time has gone. The company should have built these next two factors into their initial design.
- A Valuable Tool–Once past the toy factor, your app needs some kind of useful service in order to succeed. Facebook, for example, started out for most of us as a clever toy that allowed us to play with self-expression. But many of us started using the service to communicate regularly with our friends. And because it was so useful, we built it into our daily habits and rituals. Foursquare could have created a simple way for retailers to communicate with the people checking into their businesses. Or it might have been launched with a focused purpose of helping people find money-saving offers on the places they visit. Now an app called Shopkick is showing it the way in this direction.
- Meaningful Marketing Model–Here’s where a lot of services have still not cracked the code, and where there is still tremendous opportunity for today’s start-ups. For marketer-supported services, you need a business model in which the advertising itself adds value to the service. Facebook is a great tool, but it still hasn’t shown that the little-seen ads on the right-hand side can drive marketers’ business. The best example of success here is Google and its AdWords service. The company started with a new search algorithm based on human link sharing. This was immediately a new “toy”–and because the results were so much more accurate, Google became a valuable tool. When the company created an advertising model based on search, everything came together; Google search ads are relevant to the searcher, and the marketer pays only when a desired action takes place–so there is a win-win-win that has created a +$20 billion business for Google.
I’m obviously simplifying the world of digital services and apps here, but I think this list helps to put a lot of things competing for our attention into their place.