Checking Into the Future with Foursquare’s Dennis Crowley

Last month we explored my on-stage interview with Foursquare GM Evan Cohen about the company’s social and local discovery features. Since then, I was able to catch up with co-founder Dennis Crowley who maintains there is still a great deal of evolution in store.

Much of this has to do with the battle cry — now pervasive in the geo-local space, but started by Crowley — that we need to move “beyond the check-in.” This translates to building things on top of check-ins that utilize the technology at hand (literally).

Though many companies have taken this to heart with new directions like checking in to TV shows (including Foursquare’s Super Bowl check-ins), Crowley’s attention isn’t deviating from what he calls “the relationship between people and places.”

Within those parameters, there’s lots of room to grow, he said. This will involve using growing data sets (i.e. half a billion check-ins in the last year) to drive future behavior. This makes Fourquare’s relevance triggers as much about time as they are about place.

“If you use [Foursquare] three times a day over three months, we know a lot about you,” Crowley said during his Where 2.0 keynote. “But we haven’t really looked at the future tense. It’s always been about past and present, but that’s a big opportunity to tell people what to do next.”

The Business Case

From a merchant perspective, this counters the claim that Foursquare is more about rewarding existing customers than creating discovery for new ones. And we know that new customer acquisition (a la Groupon) is in high demand.


The company has already done this to some degree with brand campaigns like Pepsi and more recently with the “Explore” feature in v3.0, launched in March. Suggestions and merchant specials are offered based on a combination of past check-ins and friend activity.

But the remaining challenge will be moving down market to the SMB segment, where advertisers aren’t as easy to reach as the Pepsis of the world. The proposition is for SMBs to utilize Foursquare’s dashboard to manage specials and drive foot traffic.

There are benefits in the tangible results for any given merchant, but also longstanding challenges and misconceptions of the SMB marketplace that need to be faced. Outside of urban and tech hubs, they’re mostly time starved and tech illiterate, BIA/Kelsey data shows.

But Crowley reminded me that 300,000 merchants have signed up for Foursquare’s dashboard without the company dispatching one media sales rep. That could simply come down to a clearer ROI (again, like Groupon), than lots of other local media — even search.

“Merchants have different levers to adjust and see the result of people coming into their store,” he said. “To get to a million it might take something else, but it says something how we’ve gone from zero to 300,000.”

Background Check-in

On both the user and merchant sides of the equation, Foursquare’s evolutionary path is in line with the general trend, continually covered here, about LBS products moving towards discovery and away from the search paradigm that ruled the desktop.

The idea is to walk a fine line between push and pull by discerning user interest and offering points of discovery accordingly. Melding Foursquare with other media like Twitter or newspapers can also save ideas or to-do’s, which alert users when related items are nearby.

To get to this point means tapping into lots of smartphone functions that are evolving but still under-utilized (i.e., compass, accelerometer). And as smartphone penetration continues to grow beyond 30 percent of U.S. mobile subscribers (comScore), so does this opportunity.

“We can take stuff like the direction that you’re walking, how quickly you’re walking, who you’re with, and have you stopped for a while to eat lunch?” Crowley said. “All this stuff that’s coming in from your phone and network sensors can surface opportunities.”

Automatic signals like this are where Foursquare’s biggest innovations will lie. For one thing, Crowley sees “background location” in Foursquare’s future, so that check-ins and alerts are more pervasive, automatic and thus appealing to a larger set of mainstream users.

“You have to think about it, take the phone out of your pocket, and [take] 20 seconds to check-in,” he said. “The way we get from 10 million users to 50 or 100 million is with something that people don’t have to actively use as much. It’s in your pocket and it comes alive when it needs to.”

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