I’m probably not the best company nowadays to non-Foursquare users, because checking in has become almost an obsession. When I’m too immersed in the events or conversation of an evening to check in, I mentally kick myself when I realise the fact later at home. I like that I’m still discovering new things about the service on a regular basis. Of course, it isn’t perfect – there continue to be a few bugs with the service which frustrate me no end when I encounter them, but in general the boys at Foursquare seem to have a good thing going. At 1.3 million users, Foursquare is almost 7 times as popular as the next most popular location-based service, Gowalla, despite the latter winning in the Mobile category at SXSWi 2010. (The latest edition of Wired UK has a nice article about the founders and evolution of both).

What motivated me to write this post was the observation that the Foursquare reward mechanism has recently inspired a couple of other reward ‘programmes’, as it were, in completely different industries.

First, the Huffington Post has started giving badges to members in return for their participation on the site, specifically sharing HuffPo news links via Facebook and Twitter, collecting friends and fans, and flagging inappropriate comments.

And in the automotive industry, Subaru has started a Free Vehicle Badge programme, where they give badges to Subaru owners based on their hobbies (gardening, music/arts, the environment, biking, animals and so on).

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You know how they talk about the difference between leaders and followers? Perhaps this is an indication of the fact that Foursquare’s star has hit big time – I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of the badge phenomenon yet.

Friends and family often ask me what I get in return for my check-ins on Foursquare, and my response is social kudos. But with businesses cottoning on to the Foursquare phenomenon (Starbucks being the most well-known recent entrant to the game) and offering Mayors and first-time check-ins discounts, I think there’s going to be more to it. Below are a range of the options that Foursquare offers businesses (taken from their website):

- Mayor Specials: unlocked only by the Mayor of your venue. (the user who has checked in the most in the last 60 days)

- Check-in Specials: unlocked when a user checks in to your venue a certain number of times.

- Frequency-based Specials: unlocked every X check-ins.

- Wildcard Specials: always unlocked, but staff have to verify some extra conditions before awarding the Special.

So far most specials that I’ve heard of or noticed are Mayor specials – I’m waiting for businesses to tap into the others in a bigger way, or even create custom specials in co-ordination with Foursquare. I think this is only the beginning, though. Who was it who said that first a technology needs to become mainstream, then it becomes ubiquitous or accepted behaviour, and finally you master it and the innovations start?

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