Foursquare’s No Good, Very Bad (or Maybe Brilliant) Idea

Published on Author Eli Fennell

A Storm is Coming for FourSquare

Foursquare recently announced that they would be moving the Check-In functionality of Foursquare over to a new app called Swarm, which will focus entirely on sharing with “Friends”. At the same time, FourSquare itself will evolve into a Personalized Local Search app. According to the official FourSquare blog announcement,

“We believe local search should be personalized to your tastes and informed by the people you trust. The opinions of actual experts should matter, not just strangers. An app should be able answer questions like ‘give me a great date dinner spot’ and not just ‘tell me the nearest gas station.’ We’re right now putting the final touches on this new, discovery-focused version of Foursquare. It’ll be polished and ready for you later this summer.”

I’ve had the chance to play with Swarm since it launched. Below are a few screenshots.

Logging Into Swarm Requires Only One TapSwarm Prioritizes Your Feed by ProximitySwarm Allows Neighborhood SharingWinning New Swarm Stickers Replaces FourSquare Badges

As you can see, it reassuringly requires only a one-tap log-in if you’re already logged-in to your FourSquare app. This won’t guarantee their entire user base switches over to the new app (there is zero chance of that happening), but it will present minimal friction. I can’t speak to the sign-up process for new users, since I haven’t tested it.

Once you’re into the app, it looks very different from the parent app. The color theme is brighter. Badges, Points, and Mayorships seem to have vanished entirely, at least for now. Stickers and Emojis seem to have replaced Badges. Choose a Sticker, and it overlays your Profile image, or choose an Emoji instead and it does the same thing, opening potentially limitless room for creativity. New stickers can be earned for Check-ins, apparently replacing Badges in this role, which makes a certain amount of sense, as Stickers are much more about sharing than personal achievement.

Swarm is probably very much a work-in-progress, so we may see Badges, Points, and Mayorships return in some form. It also brings back the old FourSquare Feed, a scrolling list of your Friends’ Check-Ins, while adding a location-based Feed, Plans (which allow you to create plans, tag locations and people, and allows others to indicate they wish to join you), and a Neighborhood Sharing feature.

Neighborhood Sharing allows your Friends to be ambiently aware of the area you’re in, even if you don’t Check-In. While in some ways this could be considered a more private way of sharing location, it could also reveal far more information if always left on. Facebook’s Nearby Friends offers a similarly comforting vagueness while being similarly omniscient about your actual location.

Angry Walter Doesn't Like Broadcasting His Precise Location

The main FourSquare app, meanwhile, remains superficially untouched unless it detects the Swarm app, which of course I’m also using. Below are some screenshots.

The New FourSquare Highlights DiscoveryThe New FourSquare Highlights the Best Nearby LocationsThe New FourSquare Highlights the Best Recently Opened LocationsThe New FourSquare Highlights Specials

The home screen for the new app is the same as what used to be accessible under Browse Nearby, which could be tricky to locate. At the moment only Best Nearby, Specials, Saved, and Recently Opened appear to be “active”. The rest can be tapped on and do in fact work but are grayed out, maybe because they aren’t polished yet. Best Nearby needs just a bit more work around the edges, but appears to be fairly reliable. Specials is flawless because it displays only locations which offer, ironically, FourSquare Check-In (and similar) Deals. We’ll come back to that. Recently Opened seems accurate enough for now. The remaining categories have some serious flaws right now but nothing that couldn’t be overcome in time.

The apparent goal of the new FourSquare app is to take on Yelp, and surprisingly I think they could have a very real chance. A few quick comparisons suggests that while Yelp enjoys a higher quality of Business Review, FourSquare has generated more authentic social content. Pictures, Tips, and other data have been added by FourSquare users not because they wanted to become “Yelp Elites” or “Google City Experts”, or even for the express purpose of leaving a business review, but rather because they enjoy doing it. When it comes to that factor, the presence of a genuinely passionate user base that contributes content for the sheer enjoyment of it, FourSquare has rivals beat hands down.

The big gamble is whether they can continue to harvest similar data from Swarm users going forward, while also managing to close the gap where rivals have the advantage. I would, in fact, suspect that part of the very idea behind Swarm is to keep the fun “social” aspect of FourSquare alive and generating fresh content for the main app to harvest. While Yelp and Google Reviews tend to favor a certain “Pro Class” of Reviewers, FourSquare has always favored a more organic and playful type of engagement with locations and businesses.

FourSquare can’t simply ignore this “Expertise Factor”, however. Yelp has its “Elite Reviewers” who are highly sought after, while Google is testing their own “City Experts” program. It is becoming increasingly necessary to attract these “Elite” Reviews, or at least the sort of high quality reviews FourSquare is less known for. If they pull off the delicate dance of shifting the social base to Swarm, then they can focus on adding that missing element to the main app. If they’re looking to recruit “Elites” of their own, they probably have a good base of candidates to reach out to already, and this may also attract more of the elite reviewer types who are naturally drawn wherever their contributions can most influence opinions.

The challenge will be huge, however. While only FourSquare knows for certain who their user base is, I suspect people who use it to Check-In and see where others have Checked-In are more numerous and engaged than people who use it as a Yelp alternative. They may also enjoy the Discounts and Specials that sometimes come from Checking-In or being the Mayor of a business, but it remains unclear how or if this will play a part in the new FourSquare or Swarm apps.

This is an enormous risk, putting it lightly. FourSquare has survived all challengers to emerge as the best single-purpose social Check-In app on the market. Even Facebook and Google have never knocked them out, and they’ve tried. Single-purpose apps make sense. Barack Obama maintains a FourSquare account as a way to further engage his social media followers, who get a focused view of his footsteps through the world without the distractions of other networks. Dos Equis has also made creative use of FourSquare through their “Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign.

With celebrities and businesses already attached to the FourSquare we know, the FourSquare of the future may come off as a slap in the face. People have invested time and sometimes money, set up Specials for Check-Ins and Mayors, placed stickers and signs in their shops, and even paid the extortionist $20 fee for instant phone verification. Now something else will take its place, and we truly don’t know what to expect yet. Will all of that investment have been for nothing, or worse, will it become necessary to double that investment to include Swarm?

It would be surprising if FourSquare didn’t lose a significant amount of their user base in the process of trying to move them to Swarm. 50% or more would be very realistic. Basic rule of software design: the more steps a user has to go through to do something, the less likely they’ll do them.

Since a significant loss of users is almost guaranteed, what benefit does FourSquare’s leadership expect from the FourSquare side of the equation? Can a new business model for the main app inject new life into it and make it more valuable? There’s only one area where I believe they could be uniquely qualified to disrupt the market if they play their cards right, where they could provide a solution to a very real problem most people don’t know they have:

Local Offers

FourSquare already has a strong base of Specials, which are promoted and redeemed very easily, much more easily than Yelp Offers or Google Offers or Groupons or any other Local Offers alternative. Of course, much of this is tied to the very Check-In system they’re aiming to ditch, and if setting up new Specials requires extra work, they may truly be committing suicide as a brand. Advertisers may simply move their money elsewhere.

If, on the other hand, they can smoothly transition this base to Specials based on some other system, one which is just as easy or easier to redeem, then they could have a hit on their hands. For all the potential advertising power of the smartphone, no one as yet has really made Location-Based Local Offers the “Next Big Thing”. Groupon showed potential but we know how that story ended. Google has tried many times and is still trying, but the challenge of intercepting commercial intent on a local level and funneling it into a conversion remains beyond them. Yelp, meanwhile, is Yelp; their purpose remains too professional and too niche to ever attract the sort of passionate user base FourSquare has long enjoyed, and simplifying Local Offers does not seem to be on their agenda.

Between a large pool of companies already offering FourSquare Specials, and a little-known ability to manage NFC mobile payments (available on Android KitKat devices), FourSquare may be poised to find that sweet spot. I’m imagining a future version of the app where instead of Check-Ins, a Special notifies your phone when it detects you near a location that offers one, then a cashier need only scan an on-screen barcode to redeem it, or input a discount code, or you need merely swipe the phone over an NFC Payment Scanner, or something similarly straightforward. FourSquare would take a cut of these transactions, getting paid only when the business gets paid, a true conversion-based measure.

At the same time, they may be able to tackle a second problem: Location-Based Activity Recommendations. Businesses can already schedule events through FourSquare, or they can even Promote their Event as an advertisement. Secondary location signals may even be a better way of determining the engagement level of an event than Check-Ins, and of highlighting that event in a way that more general-purpose social networks can’t do as well.

Like Yelp, FourSquare has a certain amount of leverage over customer opinion, which they can bring to the bargaining table. How well their user base endures this shift will play a big part in how much that leverage matters. If the new FourSquare succeeds, it would give Swarm time to mature as a product, with little real competition. Swarm could pull a hat trick and repeat the parent company’s success as a single purpose app based around location sharing and check-ins, in turn giving the parent app the chance to fulfill a greater purpose.

Or it could all blow up in their faces. Either way, I think it was necessary for FourSquare to think big. Better to die gloriously aiming for the stars than a slow death by irrelevance.