Foursquare – As useless as Asbestos and Agent Orange?

Time Magazine has come out with a list of bad inventions, which includes both the location based network Foursquare and the (very successful) Facebook game Farmville.

Foursquare finds itself
on a list that includes Betamax, Asbestos and Agent Orange, with Time Magazine calling it “Just another tool tapping into a generation of narcissism, with which you can earn badges for checking into your local Starbucks more than anyone else.”

In fact, Foursquare is arguably a prime example of a network where the hype far outstrips the actual usage.   Mashable says Foursquare is nearing one million check ins a day.   Sounds impressive, but compare that to Twitter where the number of tweets a day was around the 53 million mark in late March according to Sysomos.

Is Foursquare a colossal waste of time?  Certainly, it seems to attract even more criticism than Twitter did in the early days.  This post by my former colleague at Cow PR, Mark Perkins is a fairly typical reaction to it.

And from personal experience, when I went to see Flight of the Conchords at the Hammersmith Apollo the other month, a measly five people had checked in (the venue has a capacity of 3600+), from an audience you’d imagine would be much more likely than the average to be smartphone users.

3-4 ways Foursquare can be more than a gimmick
The thing is, Foursquare can be useful, it’s just that most people don’t realise how.   Really there are three concrete ways it becomes a utility as opposed to a gimmick:

1 – There are circumstances when you are in a large group of people, where it’s good to see where they all are.   At the March SXSW geek fest in Austin, it was useful to find out who was attending what talk or seminar in quite a large area around the conference centre.   A lot of people I know specifically used Foursquare to let others know what they were up to.

2 – It can work well as a location based guide in self contained communities.   Harvard University’s Foursquare deal where both students and visitors can use it to navigate the campus is interesting – it serves a real purpose

3 – Retail promotions can work.  In his post Mark jokes about people whose ambition is to be ‘Sheriff of Nandos‘ in Uxbridge (Nandos = a Portuguese themed fast food chicken chain / Uxbridge = an anonymous outer London suburb).   Yep, being Mayor of Nandos in Uxbridge would be pretty sad…unless Nandos made it worth your while of course.

So, I’m one of those suckers spending £20 ($30) or so a week in Starbucks.    If I got 50p or £1 off each time I went in for being Mayor, would I do it?  Sure I would, over the year it would add up to quite a tidy sum.

It’s also a way for smaller retailers, or groups of retailers, to promote themselves.   Our local coffee shop, opposite the DLKW (and Rabbit) offices, Bou Tea, has a free pastry before 10am promo.  And I could completely see a scenario where somewhere like Spitalfields or Greenwich market in London launches a badge where you get some kind of freebie for checking into X locations.

Then there is a fourth benefit:  As a brand is that Foursquare can help with SEO, at least temporarily.

In the first three months before we’d established any real online footprint at Rabbit, our Foursquare location was on the first page of Google when you searched for us.   And back when we were still working with Cow PR in January, we immediately created a Foursquare location for the ‘pop up’ Heinz Cafe.   In the week when it was open and people were searching for it, that location is one of the first things they saw.  Without it, it would have been invisible online during those crucial first 1-2 days.

In fact ‘what’s the point’ is a question that’s asked more so outside the US.   Laurence Borel has an interesting post where she reports back from a recent visit to the US.   Checking in, says Laurence, is completely different over there to over here.     On Facebook and Twitter, as well as Foursquare, Laurence observes that business are far ahead of us in making social media check-ins both useful and interesting.   It remains to be seen how long we’re going to be playing catch-up…

Flickr Image Credit – Marshall Astor

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