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27 June 2011

Taking Foursquare forward



Foursquare’s co-founder talks to Cream about the real winners on the social networking site and how brands, both international and local, can benefit from location-based activity.

Back in June 2010, Dennis Crowley, cofounder of Foursquare, appeared on the front cover of UK futurist bible Wired as the ‘new king of social media’. Crowley, complete with crown and make-up, looks slightly bemused by the whole affair as if he is aware how ridiculous both the photo shoot and the newlyconferred title actually is.

Until 2009, location-based social networking was something of a curiosity. Prior to Foursquare, another Crowley-developed platform, Dodgeball, was launched in 2000 and acquired by Google in 2005. As with most of its social media properties, Google struggled to develop it to its full potential and the product was closed down in 2009. Hot off the heels of its demise, Crowley and cofounder Naveen Selvadurai launched Foursquare, and location-based social networking came of age.

Sticking to the gameplan
Those unfamiliar with Foursquare commonly mistake it for a game as users check in to various locations to win badges, points and mayorships. But Crowley points out that the gaming mechanic is just part of the experience: “The idea is to help unlock cities, like a travel guide written by your friends who know all the hidden places and coolest bars. The points and badges are just a technique to keep people coming back. A city guide is only any good if the recommendations in it are up-to-date.”

Similar to Biz Stone and Twitter, Crowley gets excited when other geeks use Foursquare to power other applications. He talks of a hygiene-conscious diner in New York who is mapping the most popular local restaurants on Foursquare with data from the local pest control office.

Given the rising popularity of the app, it is only natural that brands want to get involved in some locationbased action. But despite the likes of Gap and Starbucks using the check-in mechanism to deliver coupons, other large brands struggle to find a foothold.

But Crowley seems disinterested in big brand exercises. New York, the spiritual and corporate home of the network, is full of independent businesses that use Foursquare to target consumers. Crowley is equally enthused telling the tale of a local towncar service that sends Foursquarers a coupon when they check in at JFK International Airport as he is talking about Pepsi and its use of the platform to raise money for charity.

Earlier in 2011, Crowley was on the speaker circuit to announce the launch of Foursquare 3.0. Many changes were in back-end technology but the announcement was also symbolic of the future of Foursquare. A recent phenomenon among users in New York is the ‘-pocalypse’ phenomenon, where embers check in to shared events such as a snow storm or a heatwave.

Competition from Facebook Places appears to be the only blip on the horizon but, as Crowley sees it, the two platforms offer a different experience. Facebook is about people and people; Foursquare is about people and places.

What Foursquare has on its side is historical data, together with the start of some complex social modelling. “It’s the beginning of augmented memory,”  says Crowley, perhaps hinting that brands that don’t ‘fit’ on Foursquare may be able to use its data.

“If you use it three times a day over three months we know a lot about you, but not your future. It’s always been about past and present, but there’s a big opportunity to tell people what they should do next.”

In the future, there could be a place in City Hall. In May, Mayor Bloomberg announced plans for New York to become the top digital city in the US. He has appointed a chief digital officer and is partnering with Foursquare, Facebook and Twitter to help drive innovation and connectivity in the public and private sectors. Crowley may or may not be the king, but he could soon be the Mayor of New York.

Why is this on Cream? Foursquare has now established itself as a major player in the social network universe, and Crowley has a clear vision of how the platform can be of use to brands and businesses big or small. 


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