The opportunity in Foursquare

Check in Hall A at Leeds Bradford Internationa...
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I’ve written about the locative media service called  Foursquare and used it for awhile. Today Jeff Turner, a renowned non-Foursquarer ignited a fascinating discussion by people way smarter than me about how Foursquare is or is not useful. Here are my current thoughts on the topic.

Mayorship is not the opportunity in Foursquare.

One of the most well-known features of Foursquare is about becoming “Mayor” of a venue or location. If you use Foursquare to check in to a place the most, you become Mayor. Everyone who checks in sees who the mayor is.

People get excited about becoming Mayor in the same way that they used to get excited about getting on TV. It’s fun to know that other people will see your name and your face associated with something cool, like your favorite coffee shop.

But from a marketing standpoint, mayorship really isn’t that much of an opportunity. Here’s why:

Mayorship limits your interactions with people.

Becoming mayor requires many visits to a single location. Since you’re more likely to meet the same people or the same type of people at a specific location, you’re limiting the diversity of people you meet. In most businesses, growing involves meeting more people and hearing a diversity of problems. The activities involved in becoming mayor on Foursquare don’t support this.

Mayorship puts you in competition with your audience.

Lots of people want to be mayor of any given location. It’s their favorite hangout, they want to be mayor. When people look at who the mayor of a location is, they are just as likely to be looking at that person as a competitive threat or someone to be beaten, not as someone to be admired.

And when you’re the mayor of multiple locations, you start to be that obnoxious dude at the party with the perfect teeth.

Mayorship is not scalable.

To become mayor requires checking in many times. To become mayor of many locations requires checking in to many locations several times. To maintain mayorship requires continually checking in to locations many times.

The more popular a location is (aka the greater the reach of your mayorship) the more often you’ll need to check in. This makes competitive Foursquare fairly time consuming if you’re trying to use mayorship to extend your reach.

Mayorship is useful for venue owners, not so much for players.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy being the mayor of a few places. But I don’t think that this gives me any sort of real or imagined competitive marketing advantage. Certainly, I do get a little emotional about my local coffeeshop and wanting to be mayor there. But that’s mostly to tweak all my tech-head friends who also work in the Burlington VT Pine Street Geekzone. I’m not generating business from being mayor of Speeder & Earl’s.

From a marketing perspective, mayorship is not useful for the player. It’s great for the location though as it causes people to check in over and over, tapping into their competitive instincts. Be sure you know which side of the game you’re on.

The real opportunity in Foursquare is to be helpful.

There’s another feature of Foursquare that sometimes goes unnoticed. It’s called the tip.

For a bit more about how Corcoran Group uses Foursquare see this short interview by Katie Lance.

You can leave tips about every venue you check in to on Foursquare. Typical tips include what’s good about the menu, where the power outlets are located in airports, when the light is perfect for photographs. All sorts of stuff. Stuff that’s helpful to anyone who wants to fully enjoy a venue.

Leaving tips is the primary opportunity in Foursquare, here’s why:

  • By leaving tips, you’re helping visitors instead of competing with them.
  • By focusing on tips instead of mayorships, you don’t have to continually check in to the same venue.
  • With the competitive pressure of mayorship removed, Foursquare becomes a relatively passive activity and scales with your activity.
  • Leaving a variety of useful tips at various locations demonstrates your knowledge of an area or neighborhood in a way that is helpful for other people.

Foursquare and listening strategy

Once you’ve left mayorship behind and begun to focus on tips, Foursquare becomes useful again. It’s useful because tips are where the real value resides for locative media. By reading other people’s tips you can start to use Foursquare as part of a strategy based on listening.

  • People are telling you what they like and admire.
  • People are telling you what they wish was better.
  • People are using their own words to describe things.

As a business person, I’m sure you see the value of knowing these kinds of things. People on Foursquare are telling you their aspirations, their loves and their hopes for making things better.

Use Foursquare to listen. Mayorship is for chuckleheads.


Join the Conversation


  1. Nailed it! I have never pushed to become mayor – one look at my badges and you’ll see I don’t “play” for the awards. Your post makes me feel validated in the way I handle FourSquare. Of course I’m not as active as Jeff and you (I saw Jeff’s points graphic where he passed you for the day) but I have made connections because of leaving comments and tips. I rarely check in without including a text note or tip. That said my phone is not “ringing off the hook” but I am being engaged both on and off FSq.

    Signed – never a chucklehead.

  2. Ken: Yeah I’m vain enough that I like a mayorship or 20, but I’m not foolish enough to think it helps me in a business or personal sense.

    One thing I have noticed is that I ignore 4sq friend requests from people who don’t have a at least a few tips. I don’t care in the least if they have mayorships though. I’d be curious to know if I’m alone in that method of weeding out foursquare spammers.

  3. Great post, Gahlord. On a personal level, I had trouble getting into Foursquare and other geo-location services because, well, I didn’t care to be mayor of anything, and (not to be flip) the way other people would push their check-ins at mundane, uninteresting places to Twitter turned me off. I’ve slowly got back into it by using it as a location-based recommendation engine instead of a game. That works for me much better.

    On a professional level, this is good advice for media companies. Not sure about others but at Seven Days, we don’t have any real reason to reward people who check in at our office because no one has much reason to come here, unless you work here. But we have a lot of interesting, helpful (I hope) content about local places, which I try to push out through Foursquare (heeding context, of course).

  4. Mayorship of your favorite places (or at the least the quest to become the mayor, if only for a day) is frivolous for a Foursquare user, indeed. But how many users are checking in to increase their marketing chutzpah? I’m not, and my mayorships are meager compared to some folks around here. Still, its fun to take over for a short while, and I get twinge of sadness when one is lost. Leaving tips is definitely the most valuable aspect of the app, for both user and locations. Thanks for highlighting that.

  5. Tyler: Absolutely SevenDays has a business built around providing context for locations in Burlington and Vermont. So a presence on Foursquare makes all sorts of sense–in a “Useful Tips” sort of way. It breaks the content out of the confines of the print and web edition. Monetizing that is a challenge but the P’s and the New Crew are up to that challenge I’m certain.

    Lara: In several of the industries I serve business people grasp quickly at all manner of shiny marketing objects. Typically they aggressively pursue the most obvious path, in the case of Foursquare that path is mayorships. This post was written to help people see other ways of using locative media.

    And I’m definitely defensive of a few of my Foursquare mayorships. So I’m a chucklehead too. 🙂

  6. I agree that listening to Foursquare users has the most value to business owners. But I take issue with the whole “Mayorship is for chuckleheads” viewpoint.

    The norm of participation dynamics says that 90% of all users won’t write a tip. This was well documented by Bradley Horowitz back when he was still at Yahoo dealing with their Groups sites, and statistically remains true to a large extent today.

    What Horowitz recognized was that we can still glean gems of wisdom from the passive participation of the other 80% — the Lurkers. One of the best examples is the photos that rise are recognized on Flickr for their “interestingness” factor. The formula includes comments (analogous to Foursquare tips), favorites (why isn’t THIS in Foursquare, or at least more obvious?) and passive measures like the number of views.

    Local business owners can glean similar things from the (somewhat) passive use of Foursquare checkins. Simply the number of check-ins — particularly repeat check-ins — says a lot about their customer base and loyalty. And that use groovy technology.

    It’s interesting — and telling — that I became mayor of the top Zagat-rated restaurant in LA with just two check-ins. Is the restaurant frequented by Luddites? Hardly. It’s just that they’ve got better things to do than whip out their iPhone and fiddle with it when they could be enjoying the company of their friends and a fine meal. Not sure what that says about me…

    Where I’m going with this is that Foursquare isn’t going to hit the mark for all businesses. It works for those who cater to folks who are likely to use and engage in social media, and even then, in a more casual environment where that sort of activity is socially acceptable (i.e. not a really nice restaurant).

    By all means, listen to the tips that people leave. You’re foolish if you don’t. But don’t discount the passive participation of the check-in.

  7. Jeff: Great points. Mayorships are very valuable to local business owners, as are all the other passive participation features. As noted in the post, mayorship competition drive repeat visits to a location.

    It would be great to see a compelling implementation of favorites into Foursquare. I’m sure the ratingness fears of things like bad reviews on Yelp get in the way of the business model of Foursquare. This is certainly something to deal with. On the other hand, how valuable are the aggregated star ratings of something like Yelp?

    A better implementation might be something that surfaces the repeat visit rate for a venue. Instead of explicitly giving a star rating, the rating is made implicitly by noticing that you, your network, the whole system returns to the location at a certain rate. A rating based on actual data vs in-the-moment opinion.

    Tips have a defacto rating in terms of “I’ve done this” or “Add to list” which lets you know the perceived value of a particular tip.

    As you note, not as many people leave tips as use Foursquare. This isn’t a downside in my opinion. It’s an opportunity. Especially because user behavior does often include looking at tips (and newer versions of the interface try to surface the tips more by giving a popular tip lead in).

    Great points and thanks for sharing them Jeff!

  8. I’ve had a foursquare account for sometime but only recently started using it. Mostly out of peer pressure, but we’ll get to that later.

    It’s obvious the popularity of it has grown…just check your facebook or twitter feeds. I agree there’s a game element, but the player may be the only one playing.

    Consider how others may interpret or react to your “check-in”. Here are a few:
    1. Who cares! Not sure it’s important to follow the Soccer Mom’s day to Kroger, KidsRUs and the doctor’s office. If they want to be Mayor of that, they can have it!

    2. Does this person ever work? If you know I have a job, then how can I be checking in at 5 restaurants, 3 coffee shops and several clothing boutiques. Public perception is no bueno. There’s also a jealousy reaction of “it must be nice to have that kind of time and flexibility while the rest of us are at work!”

    3. I am not worthy! To my earlier point of peer pressure. Seeing friends or especially colleagues (and competitors) checking in gives you the “oh crap” sensation. I better get off my duff and start “looking busy”. To point #2, it better be related to your job and industry otherwise…again, no bueno.

    4. Stop bragging. Doesn’t it seem there’s an element of bragging in the check-ins or is it just me? Nobody likes a show off.

    5. Overkill. If your an incessant checker-iner, you run the risk of being Farmville’d otherwise known as “unfriended”. I guess we’re back to #1 and the “so what” factor.

    So, mayorships aside, define why you’re using foursquare and use it wisely. Tips…muy bueno. For me, I’m trying to help the little local business out by giving them, albeit, limited exposure but exposure they otherwise wouldn’t have!


  9. Stacy: How everyone interprets check ins is an individual thing. Some people think it’s cool some people think it’s obnoxious. Different strokes and all that. Your list certainly provides a nice variety of the negative sentiments that may be generated by checking in to a location.

  10. For a company (or a sales rep) doing business in a local only venue, being the “Mayor” is of little value… having Foursquare hooked up to your twitter boosts your “Geographical Google Pull”

    You purport to Google that your company *should be* a “trusted authority” in your Geographical area (you may not know that you want that… “trust me” you do)

    What better way than to have Googlebot gather all your checkins and make a mathematical determination of:

    “Sure enough, company x purports to do business in X geographical area and what do we find? dozens of GPS proven checkins in said geographical area!”

  11. David: That’s a very interesting idea. I’m not yet sure that it works so cleanly as you outline. For example, Foursquare profiles don’t contain links to your site so the geographic pull can’t be attributed via the system directly.

    Links from your Twitter account to the Foursquare venue sites pass ranking factors to the Foursquare venue site, not the other way around (though the theory of badrank is ever present and may apply here). Assuming your Tweets can get some sort of backpull from the Foursquare locations you still need to pass it to a site you control–perhaps via your Twitter Profile link (which only appears on your profile page).

    My guess is that, today, this is a pretty unlikely scenario. But it’s just a guess. I’d love to gather some correlation data on it.

  12. Found my way over after Peter Brewer recommended it after I wrote post talking aboutthe recent growth of interactions (and business) I’ve been seeing in Foursquare. Tips in Foursquare have become much like checking Yelp reviews for me. It also opens an avenue for communication – “Hey I see you love XYZ, do you happen to know if they…” When I wrote my first post about Foursquare (at AgentGenius), it was still largely viewed as a game. I think that perception has changed greatly and I am finding it to be quite social among the most active local users. If nothing else, it helps provide “top of mind awareness” which we all seek.

  13. Matt: Brewer’s the best.

    The tips on Foursquare are years more useful than tips on Yelp. This is because for most users there is a relationship with the person who left a tip–the tip has context.

    If I already know you and trust your judgement on coffee, then your tips about coffee will be useful for me.

    The inverse is also true, if I don’t trust your judgement on coffee then I’ll know how to take your tips regarding coffee.

    Yelp and many other recommendation systems just don’t have that. I personally find Yelp comments to be only slightly more educated variations of YouTube comments. There are, of course, exceptions. But generally this is the case. Yelp comes out after Foursquare has already been consulted.

    The ability to be useful with Foursquare has existed from day one. Just that many people were/are obsessed with the status aspect of the software (mayorships) and not being useful (tips).

    That is why I wrote this article. 🙂

    Your AgentGenius post is good. It reminds people who are using Foursquare as a marketing tool to not forget to remind people what they do for business.

    The danger, I feel, is when this is the only activity someone has on Foursquare. That’s being a chucklehead. Only taking never giving.

    Please feel free to provide a link to your more recent thoughts as well.

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