Foursquare has value, it's just not inside Foursquare

The mobile check-in app moves toward reviews, recommendations, and ads. But it could certainly sell other things.

Foursquare redesign on Android

Just over three years ago, Dennis Crowley launched Foursquare at SXSW Interactive. The app’s name and icon came from the playground game four square, and the elevator pitch was similar: you “check in” to businesses, restaurants, and other venues with your phone, share that check-in with friends, and beat other Foursquare users to becoming the “mayor” of a space and garnering competitive points, shown on a leaderboad. Which can be fun for a while, until you and your Foursquare-using friends become naturally more relaxed, less competitive, and start asking questions about what the app is really for.

Foursquare intends to answer them with a big new redesign, one that’s based on “seeing how our 20-million strong community has used the app.” The new Foursquare is geared toward exploring places, browsing reviews, recording experiences, and other uses of the app that don’t involve checking in, inviting spontaneous gatherings or envy, or maintaining fiefdoms. As Crowley implied to the New York Times, and more directly related to TechCrunch, the path to selling ads and services against reviews and user recommendations is a lot smoother than that of eventually charging users for a game they feel they can leave and not really sweat too much.

I can’t find it now, but someone let loose with a sage big of Twitter snark recently regarding startups. To paraphrase: when a startup claims that they’re looking into “new and creative revenue models,” it’s almost inevitable they’ll be selling old-fashioned advertising in three years’ time. Foursquare certainly has an invested audience with some means of disposable income, so selling ads won’t be too hard. It’s just too bad that it couldn’t have jumped on two really interesting models dreamed up by small firms riding on its API.

Forecast takes Foursquare’s strengths at geo-location and venue sorting and expands them from “Where are you now?” to “Where are you going?” You pick a venue, say what time you’ll roughly be there, and then share it to other friends using Forecast, or in public through Twitter or Facebook. Forecast is certainly a niche product in the broad sense (Android’s Play Store estimates between 10,000 and 50,000 downloads), but it could take off among groups who want to track schedules and locations, or as a travel-planning feature. And if Foursquare wants to focus on building out the community knowledge about every place in town, why not make it easy to pick a spot for lunch.

And then there’s Timehop, the service that delivers yourself, to you, from one year ago. Every morning, an email arrives with everywhere you checked in on Foursquare, everything you tweeted, every post from Facebook, and, just recently, text messages from your past. It’s a neat nostalgia kick, but if Timehop continues along its path, it could eventually have all kinds of self-analysis data that you’d want to pay for: how far you ran or biked a year ago, how many meetings your joined in on then as opposed to now, how many emails you sent versus received, and so on. It would all just instantly be there, and you didn’t have to do anything but open an email this morning.

So while Foursquare can certainly head down the well trodden path of showing you ads when you want to do something, it could potentially take a real risk and try to sell you something you want that only they have—your habits and travels, in context. Foursquare certainly can’t pretend their mayorship-grabbing, pizza-bragging users (myself among them) aren’t interested in buying a bit of themselves.

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