The Changing Face of the Check-In

I've heard over and over again that 2011 is the Year of the Check-In.  To say that Foursquare has seen a major increase in user statistics over the past year would the be understatement of the year, acquiring over 4 million users between mid-January and late-June 2011.  But behind the shear volume of check-ins that Foursquare deals with are some very sobering numbers.  According to Bianca Bosker in a fairly recent Huffington Post article:

  • The most popular apparel chains in the US are Old Navy, H&M and Victoria's Secret
  • The most popular retail chains in the US are Target, Walmart, and Macy's
  • The most popular convenience stores in the US are 7-Eleven, Circle K and Wawa
  • Based on 2010 data

While on the face of it these numbers are telling, they're hardly accurate in telling what I can only presume that most users do - check in without adding content. I say presume because Foursquare doesn't publish any numbers (or at least I couldn't easily find any data) that tells what percentage of users check-in and include value-added content to their posts.  What I mean by value-added content is any tips, hints or suggestions that Foursquare allows during the course of checking in to a particular venue.

Valueless Content

I see people all the time checking in places that have no actual value to the other users they're sharing the information with.  To take an example from the data provided by Foursquare, why do I care if you're checking in to 7-Eleven? Do people really need to know you've run out of Chunky Monkey ice cream? Probably not, but if you're not sharing meaningful content during the process, then you're just cluttering up your friends' Twitter and Facebook streams with garbage.  I'm more likely to be interested in your 3am check in if you tell me why you're out in the first place.  Who knows, it might even spark a conversation about the topic - and after all, isn't that what social media is really about?

The other part of this double-edged social check-in sword is that each user is allowing themselves to be used as a walking testimonial.  It seems like businesses are using the service solely to garner cheap (and by cheap I mean free) advertisement for their businesses by offering discounts. Why should someone with a following check into a business repeatedly, broadcasting that fact to several of their social networks, just hoping for a small discount on something if they become "mayor" of the venue?  It provides little to no benefit to the user compared to the benefit it provides the retailer.  If you multiply that behavior over several hundreds or thousands of shoppers over the course of one month, the mayorship is unlikely to change much as compared to the amount of advertisement the business stands to gain from mindless check-in behavior.  Couple that with valueless checkins (those check-ins that don't contain any useful information other than to say, "I was here") and you have yourself a very valuable resource for marketing staff to take advantage of - without them even having to do anything.

I once entered a very popular, well-known local business who boasted a 10% discount on a purchase if you show the cashier proof that you've checked in to the venue, only to find that the staff had absolutely no idea that the owner offered such a discount and was extremely hesitant to apply the discount to my bill.  I think this speaks volumes for the business: it says the business doesn't care enough to execute a proper marketing strategy, it says they don't train their staff properly and ultimate it says they care more about getting you in the door and buying their product without providing any actual incentive to do so.  In a downturned economy, that is a recipe for financial ruin.

2012: Year of the Location-Based Testimonial

It seems that several consumer networks are getting into the spirit of things and vying heavily with Foursquare for attention in the marketplace. Consumer rating service Yelp has done wonders with their application including things like augmented reality that will use your location to provide you with a list of top rated businesses.  My favorite feature in their application is that I can hold the phone up outside and it will not only tell me where the location is on a 3D compass, but it will also tell me the star rating of the business and allow me to instantly check consumer feedback and comments about the venue.  That's something that's more in tune with what location-based services should be - and what makes a service like Yelp so innately value-added.

iPhone app Oink is a newcomer to the location-based testimonial scene.  Oink is the first product to come out of Milk, a California-based mobile development laboratory founded by Digg collaborators Kevin Rose and Daniel Burka.  The whole idea behind this app is to put services and products ahead of "the check-in".  They've realized that the simple act of checking in is dying and people no longer care where you are, but what you're doing there.  It's inanely easy - simply tell Oink where you are and a list of items associated with that location will come up.  If there are no items available or if the product or service you're experiencing isn't already created by another user, it will direct you to add it to the list and it will even allow you to add a photo with some Instagram-like filters for added effect.

Say for example, I'm at the Apple Store checking out some new iPods.  I can pull up that item, based on my location and rate it: Dislike It, So-So, Like It or Love It.  After rating the item, a box opens up that prompts me to post either a brief review of the item or a comment.  I can also choose to push that information to either Facebook or Twitter (and yes, Foursquare too).  No doubt if you're connected to me on Facebook, you've seen me try out a few postings just to get the hang of it.  But underneath this rudimentary function is something much more powerful.

Each item is given a tag related to what the item is and it builds what Oink called cred - short for credibility.  What cred does is help you build a portfolio of interests that friends can use to establish your "authority" in a particular area.  A sample of my cred screen shows that my main concentrations is technology and Apple.  Oink uses the tags associated with the items you're rating to establish a point system, by which your credibility on topics and areas of interest are ranked.

Oink and other apps like it fly in the face of how Foursquare conducts its service.  It places content over location and really pushes the user to think about what it is they're sharing with others.  Oink and apps like it will change the way we do location-based services.  Location-based testimonials are a much more powerful way to integrate the customer experience and where Milk can take this app is nowhere but up.  If Rose really wants to put a dent in how society shares the things we like with each other, he can also make a serious challenge to the institution that Foursquare has become.  If Oink were to integrate a backend so that business - especially restaurants - can set up menus on the service and allow people to rate the dishes they've ordered and provide genuine, honest feedback on those items then businesses would stand to gain much more than repeat business.  This would be more than an opportunity to give a discount on services - it would be an opportunity for business staff to interact with customers on a level not seen before.  Currently, even Foursquare doesn't provide that level of customer feedback, since the user has now way of knowing if their comments will reach anyone's ear.

If Oink and apps like it can differentiate themselves in a way that says they're more than a user-friendly way to share likes and dislikes, they will have found a way to capture meaningful data for businesses to respond to while making the customer feel valued.

If you're interested, you can read a recent posting about Oink on TechCrunch.