3 reasons check-in apps aren’t going to make it

I wrote a while back about why I was down on Foursquare.  That post was specific to Foursquare, which I still think is a great tool but my conclusion is that in its current state, I’m not cool enough to appreciate it.

But I’ve been studying the “check-in” apps for quite a while now and some things are becoming clear to me.  I should make the point that I’m talking specifically about applications where the main feature is to check-in at a location.  For instance, I’m not talking about Yelp (which added checking-in but is still focused primarily on restaurant reviews and ratings).

The 3 reasons that check-in apps aren’t going to make it:

1. Checking-in is a feature, not a product.  Startups face this dilemma constantly, striving to determine whether or not their company is a stand-alone business or if its better served being a part of another business.  We’ll see this play out when Facebook rolls out their check-in feature.  If they fail miserably only 10 million people will use it.  Foursquare only has 2 million users today.

2. They currently demand too much from their users.  As people get more and more comfortable lifestreaming – sharing their experiences with their friends via digital mediums – they become encumbered with too many applications required to share their experience.

Let’s say I go to a concert.  I need to check-in on Foursquare to let my friends know I got there.  I then take photos of the band on stage and I put them on Flickr.  All my friends get in a group shot and I quickly post that on Facebook and tag them.  I want to see what other people at the concert think about the playlist so far, and I need to search Twitter for that information.  So you see quickly I am opening up 3 or 4 apps to share this experience.  The first to go will be Foursquare as I can easily tell my friends I’m at the concert by updating my Facebook status.

3. Unlike the successful social networks, they become less useful with growth.  This to me is the most interesting phenomena and perhaps the most telling when looking at the long-term value of check-in applications.

When you first use Facebook or Twitter, before you’ve really connected to people, you have that moment of, “Ok, now what?”.  Then this amazing thing starts happening.  You start connecting with people and pretty soon you’re checking these networks throughout the day to share more stuff with your connections and see what is happening in their lives.  The more people you connect with, the better the network.

But with Foursquare, the exact opposite thing happens to most people.  You start by checking in, getting badges (which seem cool at first then you quickly start saying, “Ok, now what?”) and you’re high on the leaderboard.  But the more people you connect with the farther down the leaderboard you get.  And the more people that are on Foursquare, the harder it is to get a mayorship.  Foursquare was a lot more interesting to me when a few hundred thousand people were using it then today with almost 2 million.

So now what?

I’m in no way saying these companies don’t have a future.  But they’ll have to adapt as any successful startup has to.  Some things that I think will start happening in the space:

Checking-in to a location will morph to checking-in to an activity.  This will expand the experience dramatically, allowing people connect in new ways.  Hot Potato is one company doing this.  “I’m watching the Lost series finale” for instance.

The applications will become more useful to the end user.  Foursquare and Gowalla are starting to do a little of this by allowing deals/coupons/incentives through their platform.  But the one I like the most is WeReward which actually gives you money via paypal for checking-in or performing tasks.  I’ll open an additional app to get some cash money yo.

Some players will be snatched up and become a feature of a larger business.  We’ve seen talks in this area for a while including a supposed courtship of Foursquare by Yahoo.

Checking-in will be embedded (as a feature) in brand applications.  You go to Walmart, open up your Walmart app and check-in, unlocking coupons/deals/etc.  Similarly you attend a conference, open up the conference app and check-in to the sessions you’re attending, where you can also download the presentation, interact with people, give feedback, etc.

We’ll see where this space ends up.  Foursquare claims to want to be the 3rd major player in social networking, next to Facebook and Twitter.  At this point I just don’t see it.

Do you?


  1. Joe Koufman on July 27, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    What, you tell me this now? I am almost up to $1 on WeReward!

  2. Thomas L. Strickland on July 27, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    As much as I like FourSquare, I know you're right. Badges are cool, but Mayorships mean very little in the long run, so tangible rewards beyond the occasional freebie will have to come from the establishments themselves.

    Though I gotta say … Hot Potato feels like Twitter by multiple-choice. I'm occasionally slack, but that's a bit much. “It's too much effort to type an entire sentence abou what I'm actually doing, so I'll just click this and this. Zzzzz ….”

    Epic Win, however? Can't wait for that. :)

  3. Drew Hawkins on July 27, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    I think Foursquare's ability to thrive depends way too much on how other people use it. It's best use IMHO is as a loyalty card of sorts. For every X amount of check-ins you get some sort of deal.

    Your comments on having to open up too many apps to share an experience is true. Foursquare does provide ease to see who else is in your location (a feature I like) but it doesn't allow much sharing after that.

    Either way, for now, Foursquare is still fun for me. I read an interview with their founder the other day saying they intended to roll out a lot of new features this fall. Maybe this will resolve some lack of sharing abilities.

  4. Jeff Hilimire on July 27, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    Ah but I list WeReward as a sign of the future ;)

    Plus I'm almost to $10 with them…cash money yo.

  5. Kaitlyn Dennihy on July 28, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    Great points. I'm interested to see how other applications like WeReward or Scvngr will capitalize on the idea of location based marketing and possibly partner with applications like Foursquare or Gowalla to take interactivity beyond a badge.

    Cross promotions from digital to real world businesses, whether it be a coupon, a game or something new, should enhance these platforms and make them meaningful to larger user bases.

  6. Seth Miller on July 28, 2010 at 3:51 pm

    I can see a multitude of these kinds of Apps surviving as APIs as opposed to stand-alone experiences. I think that's the great success of Twitter, really, is that I can access it from multiple touchpoints and then weave that data I'm generating into a blog or Facebook or Tumblr, etc.

    I don't think anyone will ever “own” the geo-location space, but I'm guessing the “winner” will have some hook into photography. I say that only because most smartphones already append GPS data as a part of the EXIF data in the photos they take.

    So maybe someone like Yahoo's Flickr could make a big play or Google via some kind of new Maps/Yelp mash-up.

    The winner is the data/API married to a new experience via passive awareness.

    Also, this link is for Thomas: https://www.chorewars.com/

  7. Lauren S. Leighton on July 28, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    I definitely hear what you are saying. I especially agree with you on your second point–currently demanding too much from their users. I personally haven't fully gotten into FourSquare or Gowalla, but that is because it seems a little pointless to me. If I was going to let people know where I was, it would probably be through Facebook or Twitter.

    I think there are going to have to be big incentives attached to geo-location apps in order for me to get into them. Just checking in somewhere to checkin and possibly get a badge doesn't do anything for me.

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  10. Christian Sterner on July 29, 2010 at 4:44 am

    Totally agree Seth. Before elaborating, let me say hello to the entire city of Atlanta! I went to Lassiter High School > 1 year of school in Athens > Transferred to University of Colorado at Boulder in 1995. I miss so much about Atlanta and am glad to see the tech conversation/community thriving.

    My team has been focused on location-based media for roughly 6 years straight: WellcomeMat began as a video platform for locally-focused professionals and brands to demonstrate their uniqueness on the web via online video. We gained a ton of momentum in the real estate vertical, and decided to focus “The Mat” on just that. Doing so, however, left a hole in our hearts because we are primarily concerned with the future of local business owners in the US – you know…the characters and people that make each city unique…

    This is all a very long winded way of me bringing up Pegshot, which is our mobile video and photo platform used to quickly publish what's happening where you are with friends and family. We believe that being able to broadcast videos and photos to services like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Posterous and Tumblr and doing so with your approximate or exact location (venues, events, parks, schools etc) IS valuable enough to justify using our app. It is a utility, not a “network,” used to tell your friends where you are and share with them what's happening there.

    Apologies to pitch within the comments: there are rare instances where I find myself doing this, usually when people are talking my game (which I thank all of you for). Be good and BUY LOCAL!!

  11. Jeff Hilimire on July 29, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    Thanks for joining the conversation Christian and I'll check out Pegshot.com, looks interesting.

  12. Chad Elkins on June 7, 2011 at 5:58 am

    Probably best to respond to your three reasons in order…so here ’tis:

    1) Totally agree that checking in is simply a facilitator or action to get to a richer experience. The key here is to keep in mind that it isn’t important that you are at a location or participating in an activity, but that you chose to share that fact.  Foursquare has tried to position themselves as a recommendation engine with the new Explore functionality and the Gowalla CEO recently stated that his company is not a check-in app, but is designed to help you “craft the narrative of your life”.  All of these companies know that the novelty around the check-in commodity is over and they must adapt to providing an enriched experience for users.  I’ve noticed over the last several months that I rarely see people still using check-in aggregators.  I think this is due to the native apps themselves continuing to grow beyond the act of checking in and people longing for a better purpose to their social sharing.

    2) A year ago there was still a major disconnect in check-in apps between the “where” and the “what” which resulted in having to utilize many apps to round out the experience of certain activities.  A lot of progress has been made since then in bridging that gap.  For your concert example, I could check-in to the particular band using GetGlue and attach my location using their Foursquare API integration at the same time (which I could then auto-share to Facebook and Twitter).  This would instantly settle the “I’m here and doing this” problem across multiple platforms.  If the concert or sporting event had a single venue within GetGlue then a lot of commenting and discussion could still occur within that one app.  Finding a universal solution is a pretty tall order and for most events a richer content sharing experience is needed so additional apps that are tailored for a specific function will be used.  If you think about it, the company most poised to do that today would be Facebook as they pretty much have all of the individual components there already (events, check-ins, photo/video sharing, chat, etc) and only would need to connect them into a seamless process.

    3) I would argue that Foursquare actually does become more relevant as the number of your connections with other users expands, but will admit there is probably a limit at some point.  The tip function surfaces content to me from friends first so building a network of people that frequent the same establisments and have similar interests is more useful than a few friends that don’t cross paths with me.  The new explore functionality helps me identify new locations through the lens of my friends’ check-in history.  If several of my friends have visited a place then that recommendation engine could suggest that venue to me.  A key problem here in the current version of Foursquare is the lack of sentiment analysis which could easily be resolved by adding a simple “would you recommend this place to a friend” yes or no quesiton within the app after checking in. 

    Your “So Now What” points:

    * Checking-in to a location will morph to checking-in to an activity. – You were spot on here. The concept has moved on to entertainment, drinking beer, etc.  Again, this is helping to put the what I’m doing at a location context into the lifecast.

    * Applications will become more useful to the end user – A recent survey showed that about half of all people who use LBS do so in order to receive discounts or tangible rewards.  This trend will continue and while digital merit badges/gamification is important, it eventually all boils down to what am I getting out of it.  For some just the meeting new people or finding new places aspect is enough, but others need that monetary reward.  The app that incorporates all of these mechanics will be more successful than ones that carve out a niche focusing on one area only. 

    * Some players will be snatched up and become a feature of a larger business – Definitely will and has started happening.  Case in point the Whrrl purchase by Groupon.  Currently, there are rumors about a Groupon component being integrated into Foursquare. Funny the Yahoo mention…in retrospect a 100 million purchase would have been a good buy.

    * Checking-in will be embedded (as a feature) in brand applications – Totally agree with you here.  The movement of Foursquare from an app to a platform has been extremely hot over the last year and does a lot to help drive adoption as other companies become your advocates.  While the open API is critical to their success (much as I believe it was for Twitter), the Foursquare team will need to continue to innovate in order to keep the public interested in using the experience they create for them rather than having someone let Foursquare complete the check-in while I’m a captive audience in another brand’s app.  Tons of stuff I could talk about with regard to individual branded apps integrating a variety of existing technology to not only impact in store experiences, but help use that info to drive CRM strategy as well.  I’ve written enough so we can save that for another discussion. :-)

    High five

  13. Vlad Gorenshteyn on June 7, 2011 at 7:47 pm

    Chadd, your response is longer than the original post, nice! lol Love the 2am passion!

    I think Jeff makes an interesting point about network effects devaluing mayor-ship, but I do agree with you that richer experiences are on the horizon which will reduce the app-juggling and will bring new value to checking-in. Innovation will come on the heels of acquisition and consolidation that will help both the consumer and marketer; after all, how many check-in applications can you keep up with? We see the same problem with group-buying and other novelty business models.

    As we begin to consume the *new* multi-dimensional, geo-social layers to help us make sense of the data, being a “mayor”, earning “badges”, and to some extent getting “discounts” (this is a social tool not a discount network isn’t it?) will become an afterthought. Just like the Google model, more data will bring more meaning to “what” people are doing. In this case network-effects will be of benefit. The question then becomes, who will be offsetting the cost? Will check-ins be ad-driven or perhaps mobos will be doing the acquiring (considering how much bandwidth is drawn from the increasingly demanding LBS apps) and charging for the services on our monthly bills?

    Let’s not forget NFC either. Not only will we say goodbuy to QR codes, et. al. but similarly we’ll decrease and/or eliminate (if you just let your phone accept check-ins automatically) check-in friction in LBS apps increasing penetration and increasing the size of the network.

    Whatever the case, let’s remember to keep our smartphones at least 5/8 of an inch away from our heads so we can enjoy this lively discussion well into the future. 

    We also need to put together an LBS meetup to hear from FourSquare and the like.

    -my two cents

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