How Foursquare Has Changed, and What I Wish It Could Be
Foursquare has just turned five years old and raised $35 million in a Series D round back in December. The company boasts an impressive number of users (over 45 million according to their About page), but it is clear that big product changes are still being tested, while the tech world is eagerly waiting to see how it will monetize its data and users. As a Foursquare user who now works on another consumer web product, I wanted to comment on some recent Foursquare product changes that make sense, some decisions that I wish I knew the data behind, and a couple different directions that I could see Foursquare going.
Foursquare is centered around a relatively simple idea: get users to "check in" at different places they visit, including local businesses, points of interest, or even private locations like a house. These check-ins are broadcast to one's Foursquare friends by default, and originally everything was heavily gamified, with check-ins earning points, certain patterns of check-ins earning badges, and repeated check-ins at one location granting a coveted "mayorship" over that venue.
Recent changes that make a lot of sense
The experience is less of a game. Before, every check-in would be valued with points, with extra points for more unique check-in behavior. Badges were granted with great fanfare, and publicly displayed. These features still exist, but have become more subtle, and even hard to find sometimes. This feels like a good move for Foursquare - playing the game is fun at the beginning, but users need a better reason to keep coming back to Foursquare.
There's less emphasis on "beating" your friends. Trying to get the highest weekly score among your Foursquare friends used to be a central part of the experience. Now, I'm not even sure that the leaderboard feature even exists. This is very much like #1 above - it was fun to try to beat your friends on Foursquare, but ultimately this got repetitive.
Less emphasis on mayorships, aka I don't really care that you checked into your own house. Becoming mayor feels almost like becoming a "regular" somewhere, which is a great feeling. However, I would guess that one problem with mayorships is that they became a bit meaningless. I can become mayor of my apartment or my office, but is that data point really useful to Foursquare or to other users? Appropriately, the emphasis on mayorships has been diminished.
Interesting decisions that I wish I could hear more about
Decreased emphasis on "tips" and recommendations about a place. Much like Yelp's "review highlights", Foursquare will highlight common phrases in a venue's user-submitted tips. This sounds like a good idea: for example, telling a user what's popular at a restaurant could be a very valuable service. However, it seems like these tips are now harder to find. Are users unwilling to write a lot on their phones? Was the distribution of tips favoring restaurants, putting Foursquare too much in direct competition with Yelp? Or were the recommendations not really useful for users?
Auto-detecting that I'm somewhere new and asking me to check in. Recently, Foursquare was testing a new feature where the app tries to detect if you are in a new location. If it can do that, the app sends a push notification asking if you want to check in. This is clearly a way to streamline checking in, but the potential risks are plenty: users might be creeped out (I was at first), it could drain battery life due to its location monitoring, and it might even violate some privacy laws. I would love to learn how the metrics are responding and how Foursquare navigated the potential risks during development.
It's hard to find information about a venue that I'm not trying to check into. Foursquare has an incredibly powerful database of information about venues, not just with its users' tips, but also with objective information like hours of business and special Foursquare deals that businesses are running. But, this information about a venue is not easy to find on the mobile experience if I'm not a) nearby or b) trying to check in to that venue. As a user, I'm not sure how to access the wealth of information on Foursquare when I want to. Is this a conscious user experience decision by Foursquare, and if so, why?
What Foursquare could be
Without knowing anything insider about Foursquare's plans or metrics, here are some different directions that I could see Foursquare taking as it attempts to attract new users and earn more money:
Competing with Google Now. Google Now leverages Google's access to a user's email, calendar, and search history to suggest relevant information without the user querying for it. For example, it might show the travel time and best routes for a calendar appointment later today. If I check in more on Foursquare, it could try to predict my destinations and intents, for example suggesting a bar in the neighborhood after a check-in at a restaurant on a Friday night. This would be technically (and analytically) challenging and not straightforward to monetize, but would certainly be attractive to some new users.
Having all information possible about a venue, framed by the context of my social circle. When I check in or look up a location, Foursquare could show me everything possible about that location, including ratings from different sites, menus for restaurants, or price listings for other services. It could also show my all of my friends' histories at that venue (i.e. socially relevant information) or trends drawn from other users' histories at that venue. This could help attract new users who are just searching online for business info, and there are definitely monetization opportunities here (ads, for starters).
Being the definitive encyclopedia for venues and locations. Similar to the above idea, Foursquare could try to position itself as the definitive catalog of information about all businesses and points of interests in general. Foursquare has an API that exposes its data on this front, but I wonder how large a market opportunity this could become if the data was sold to other apps and businesses. Any revenue stream from this would be from businesses, not users, and this might already be a healthy revenue source for them.
Collecting all deals and offers a venue has. Foursquare arranges special offers with businesses that its users can use. Foursquare could try to show not only those deals, but also any deals or coupons that business might have through other channels. There are other products out there already doing this, however, but this is very much in line with the idea of being a source of all kinds of information about a business. This would obviously be a useful feature for users, and monetization could happen via ads or affiliate networks.
comments powered by Disqus