*IS* Foursquare the next big thing?

Well that’s what I’ve been trying to work out for myself over the past couple of weeks. The simple answer (from me at least) is: I don’t really know, but quite possibly!

Foursquare is a location service-based social network-come-game. What it does in effect is to tell you where your friends are and supposedly add a little fun to going out. It’s like GoogleLattitude meets a little bit of Facebook, a touch of Twitter, and a dash of Angry Birds.

How does it work?

The whole system is based around what is known as “checking-in”. You check-in from bars and restaurants and any kind of location (eg bar, club, restaurant, railway station, store), perhaps with a little message about where you are and what you’re doing – all very brief – and the system will then register what you’re up to.

People who you’re friends with will then get pinged a message to let them know your whereabouts and activities, and the idea is that they can then join you if they fancy or just be pleased that you’re out having a good time. From the other side of things, if you’re out on your own somewhere, suddenly mateless in town or stuck at home and bored, you can theoretically see where everyone’s at and get yourself down to the party. All pretty simple.

The other two things you can do are create a to-do-list of places you’ve always wanted to go and add to a Top 12 list of your recommendations for other people.

The clever, or clever-er, part is that you get points for checking-in. The idea is that it encourages you to do so, which then gets the system running and propagates the idea and the ‘fun’ even further. It’s all rather new, even for the developers, and much of the system is still evolving but, at the moment, you get a point for checking in, you get five points if it happens to be from a place you’ve never checked-in from before; a further point if it’s the second, third, fourth etc place of the day; and another still for checking-in multiple days/nights in a row, you old booze hound, you. You’re always eligible for the five discovery points no matter what time of day it is.

It seems to be aimed primarily at the evening, painting the town red crowd, but more and more users seem to use it for everyday life too.

How do I start?

Like all social networks, just head to the foursquare site and sign up with a free and very brief profile which will ask you for your mobile phone number so it can ping you. Then add a photo and find your friends. And you can get a Foursquare app for your iPhone as well.

Foursquare is like Twitter was before it was Twitter

Foursquare’s very much in the same boat as Twitter was three years ago. The early adopters have started to drink the kool-ade, but for the most part it remains a service completely misunderstood, and even mocked from time to time. But here’s the thing, it is starting to catch on and people are starting to sit up take notice, and actually use it. Foursquare is one of the more practical location-based social networking applications, and it’s value can only truly be gleaned by actually using it.

There are also some pretty awesome statistics. In its first twelve months, registered users reached the 1,000,000 mark. But rather more astonishing, its has taken (July 2010) just three months to double that figure. Plus the company behind Foursquare have recently had a cash injection of $26,000,000 from an investor. Clearly someone sees potential for Foursquare.

What’s it like to use?

iPhone app

Like I said, the only way you can get your head round new developments like this is to try it out for yourself. So some weeks ago I signed up, and earned myself a badge (Wow! Oh – just for signing up? I see!). I discovered that I could link my Foursquare account to both Facebook and Twitter. Whenever I check into a place an update would be posted to that effect on FB and TW – neat.

And so I started checking in to places. It just so happened that I was about to go on holiday to Scotland, so plenty of opportunity to check into lots of new places. And that’s exactly what I did. In terms of updating friends on where I was at, or what I was doing, Foursquare saved me a lot of work! Instead of keying out ‘I’m at Ullapool Ferry Terminal’ and tweeting it, all I had to do was ‘check in’ at the ferry terminal, Foursquare recognising my location, and once I hit the green check-in button, Twitter and Facebook were updated for me. Essentially I didn’t have to type anything. Hey, result!

Needless to say I became addicted to the thing. I was checking in left right and centre. And anyone who was following my Facebook or Twitter feed yesterday will testify to that. On a day trip to Sheffield by train I managed to check in at no less than 42 sites, mainly train stations. OK, perhaps a bit on the overkill, but you see I was feeding an addiction (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it).

What’s in it for a business?

I can see how certain types of businesses, typically stores and restaurants, be able to use Foursquare to drive revenue and customer retention. Indeed, the potential is enormous.

Foursquare know that I went somewhere, because I checked in.  They can pass that data onto that business, who can connect their web advertising, any recommendations, and social media buzz to an actual person who has walked into their store. Many say that that is potentially the holy grail of the advertising world.  Does money and effort invested in marketing a brand online, actually drive foot traffic? Does that promotion actually hit the mark? Well, Foursquare knows the answer to that and lots of other things too.

Instead of competing in a “global marketplace,” local business owners now have access to geotagging (taking advantage of the GPS technology built into smartphones), local search, and other location-based services. All of which make the Internet more useful to small business than it has ever been before.

Imagine being a hotel owner with several rooms as yet unoccupied at 9pm one evening. You know there are a couple of big events happening in town and people are going to be looking for rooms to “sleep it off.” Because of location-based services like Foursquare, they can now advertise a special for those rooms to people who are close enough to take advantage of it.

A business could offer a loyalty scheme to customers using Foursquare for Business. It keeps track of all the stats and even sends messages to pinpoint who their most loyal customers are.

I was keen to investigate how the Environment Agency might use Foursquare. I’ve struggled, to be honest, to identify a usage. But maybe we could use it a roadshow events, by encouraging Foursquare users to check-in when they visit our stand. Their friends would see that they’d visited us and may feel motivated to come along and find out for themselves what the show is all about. There are quite a number of dependencies there, not least of which is that for it to be fully effective the userbase in the UK would have to be substantially higher than it (probably) is today.

So perhaps the original concept is where it will work best? It is aimed primarily at the evening, painting the town red crowd – so bars, clubs, restaurants and the like.

Your ideas?

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts about other uses for Foursquare. Perhaps there’s additional scope there that I’ve failed to spot.

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