Checking In is Still a Niche, but you need to worry now

I should be one of Foursquare‘s biggest users. But alas, I am not. Why? Well, it’s just too complicated to check in.

A lot of Location Based Service (LBS) fanboys are going to say things like “But Chuck, it’s so simple!” But you’re wrapped up in the coolness of it. For most people, checking in has become a cumbersome and only occasional activity. That said, I think it’s still going to be big.

Yes, that’s right. Despite the fact that I don’t use LBS all that often, I believe it’s going to be huge. But it won’t look like what it does today.

First, let’s examine the problems. Checking in requires me to have a motivation. Early in Foursquare’s existence I heard a lot about the gaming aspect of it, and for some early users that drove adoption. Now companies like Foursquare, SCVNGR and Gowalla are turning to deals to get you to check in. Certainly better than earning a mayorship or points, but if the number of unclaimed coupons that still land on the doorsteps of people receiving the Sunday paper are any indication, deals only go so far. How many of you now ignore the Groupons and Living Social deals cluttering your inbox? Yeah, I’m raising my hand on that one too.

Foursquare has more than 6 million registered users, but I haven’t seen many numbers that address the percentage of those users who are active. I have seen numbers about the number of checkins, but I’m not sure what percentage of users generate what number of checkins. If anyone has that data please let me know.

So what’s my motivation to check in? On Tuesdays I like to check in at Taste to let people know that our OpenPR coffees are happening. Sometimes I check in to a restaurant if I love their food or to just give them a bit of promotion. Sometimes I check in so people in the area know where to find me, like if I’m at Sip in Post Office Square. But usually I go through life without checking in.

Mainly, my problem is that it takes between 4 and 6 actions to check in.

  1. Pull out phone
  2. Open application
  3. Find my location (sometimes made easier if it’s a place I frequent)
  4. Check in
  5. Write comment (optional)
  6. Take picture (optional)

One of the things that made the Flip camera so successful was the single button operation. Who wants to go through 4 to 6 actions just to check in? (I’m not so crazy, Dennis Crowley brought the same issue up during his AdAge interview and they’re experimenting with some different type of checkins as well.)

So what will change things? One word: payment.

Payment is the one action that everyone takes on a regular basis. There are exceptions, of course, like when you show your pass to get into a gym or yoga studio, but even that amounts to a sort of payment. The key is when payment moves from credit card or cash to the mobile phone. Square is probably the closest to making this a reality, considering its announcement today, but other (rather large) companies are, in fact, working on Near Field Communication-based solutions as well.

Regardless, one thing is for certain, we’ll soon pay with our cell phones and, if all goes well, check in at the same time.

But, a funny thing will happen on the way to Foursquare nirvana: noise. Lots and lots of noise.

Imagine how useful your Facebook feed will be when all you see is “Chuck just bought a 2-shot small cappuccino at Taste.” So the trick for companies will be to figure out when to encourage sharing and when to hold back. The same will be true for individuals. If I clog my friends’ feeds with junk, then they’re more likely to block me.

The interesting thing is, in order for any organization to understand how a tool works and what makes it effective, they need to begin working with it BEFORE it takes off. So if you have a business that relies, in some part, on location (like a retail store or a well-trafficked office) I would encourage you to play with Foursquare or one of the other services. See what incentives motivate your audience to check in. Measure the reach of those checkins, then see how you can drive traffic through them.

The goal is to avoid being background noise later.


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  1. I don’t know, Chuck. I think there will be some businesses that just won’t get it for awhile. When I think about the experience I had recently buying Chinese take-out, I have to laugh…the restaurant had emailed me a coupon, which I pulled up on my phone when it was time to pay. The cashier looked at me and said, “Oh c’mon” then summoned her manager. He made it clear that they would only accept PRINTED coupons and those could ONLY be used if I were paying in cash. I didn’t even try checking in on Foursquare when I was there…

  2. Hi Alison,

    I agree that businesses just won’t get it, which is why they need to think about it now. That little glitch you ran into — emailed coupon on your phone — is a problem they need to learn to understand. I’m sure you’re not the only person who had that happen, which means that they will eventually understand that people aren’t going to print out coupons and then train their employees accordingly.

    Some will come with competition. When the Chinese restaurant down the street sees success by having people promote the restaurant through payment, they’ll do the same. Conversely, if a restaurant tries using checkins and they don’t work, they won’t bother with them again.

    Last week the Fresh Ground team grabbed lunch at No Name Seafood. For years this was a cash-only establishment, it was one of the things that made it great. But about 7 years ago they started taking credit cards. The customers dictated that they wanted to pay in a method other than cash. If the audience starts using something, then the shops will follow.

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