During the NBA Finals this year I did something I never thought I’d do. I intentionally checked in on Foursquare when I wasn’t planning to go somewhere, just to get a badge. For the finals between the Lakers and Celtics, the NBA partnered with Foursquare to offer team badges. “Go Lakers!” comments with any check-in earned the user a Lakers badge; “Go Celtics!” comments earned the Celtics badge.
Despite my otherwise fanatical nature about sports, I don’t have a lot of passion for the NBA. Maybe it’s just that I never really had an NBA teamI loved, but I much prefer college basketball. I wasn’t even planning to watch the Finals, but when I saw on Twitter that friends were getting these Lakers/Celtics badges, I wanted to add one to my collection. I went to my corner bodega, picked up a beer, checked in and commented “Go Lakers!” (I guess if I had to pick one team I’d choose that of the city I was born in. Why not?) So sue me. I’m a sports fan, and it would allow me to share the experience with fellow sports fans on Twitter and Foursquare around a common event. I actually did end up watching Game 1, so the marketing effect for the NBA was successful.
This experience confirmed two very important observations about the value of Foursquare that I’d already been thinking about:
1) Checking in on Foursquare is not only about location or badges or battles over who is the Mayor, but in shared experiences between people — whether friends in the same city or not.
The badges and the mayor reward are like the free giveaways that sports teams use to get fans into a stadium. The experience that is behind that check-in, and the value of the location to the user, is the most valuable aspect of the application. Some people may check in everywhere they go just to get badges and mayorships, but those places mean nothing to them, just like some people will go to a baseball game when there’s a free bobblehead or “Family Day” promotion, because it’s something fun to do. For others, what happens on the field and the experience they have when they are there is most important. They check in at a place because it has meaning to them, or it allows them to share an experience with other people, whether those people are with them or follow them on Twitter or Facebook. If you have a passion for a specific location, or it has become a place you enjoy going to frequently and represents an interest of yours, and then get a badge for checking in there or become the Mayor, then it’s important – and you’re excited to share that. For example, not only was I psyched to get the “Brooklyn 4 Life” badge, but I hit it when I checked in at my favorite retailer, Brooklyn Industries (where I became the Mayor at the same time). Triple Word Score! I was pumped to share that with my friends who know how much I love BKI. This is where I think the bread and butter of Foursquare is.
2) Context is King.
I rarely check in somewhere if I don’t have a comment to add. If I just post that I’m at The Apple Store in Soho, it doesn’t mean much. But if I say “Just put in my reservation for iPhone 4. The waiting game begins” (as I just did), it adds context and sparks conversation – and ultimately connection. Just like any social networking tool, the end game is the connection it inspires.
To those who bemoan Foursquare users who allow their badges to post to Twitter and Facebook, I wouldn’t have known about the NBA Finals badges if my friends didn’t allow it to post to Twitter. Allowing badge earnings to post to Twitter spreads he virality of the application and promotes sharing of an experience – not just a location., which essentially is meaningless without its context. However, I agree with David Berkowitz that it should be done selectively – as part of sharing an experience with your friends that they will find valuable. Otherwise it just becomes irrelevant to your networks, and your friends end up blocking your Foursquare updates.
When I went to South by Southwest this year, Foursquare (and Gowalla, to some extent) was the hot item. Everyone was checking in. Everywhere. Part of it was just that we’re all technology and media geeks and wanted to play with the new “it” thing as much as possible. But it’s also because we were able to see where others were and move from event to event, knowing what was hot and what was not. We were able to meet up with specific people because we knew we were at certain locations through checking Foursquare. But I have the feeling that Foursquare’s original intent — as a way to see where your friends are, meet up with them and bar hop — is not really how most people use it.
Just as Twitter’s original intent was to update your friends with what you are doing, and soon evolved into a network of information-sharing, conversation and connection among people with common interests, I think Foursquare will evolve as it provides more value to its users – beyond the standard badges, mayorships and even location. Badges will become more valuable – and coveted – when they are contextual to an experience that allows you to connect with others in a particular, unique experience. At South by Southwest, I cared more about getting the “Fixin’ Wagon” badge for checking in at multiple food trucks (a staple of Austin, TX) than the Super Swarm badge for just being at the same place as 250 other people. I can get the Super Swarm badge at other places, but Fixin’ Wagon was specific for South by Southwest. I won’t get it anywhere else, so it becomes a special addition to my badge collection. Additionally, by checking in at SxSW – and sharing my updates and their context with my friends on Facebook and Twitter – I was able to share the experience with people who weren’t there and allow them insight into my trip. Could Foursquare be the new postcard?
So back to the NBA Finals. The badges had nothing to do with a specific location or type of location. You could get it if you’re at your bodega, or a bar, or restaurant or hat at home. They had to do with sharing an experience with others with a common interest. I certainly fell for it. This is where I think badges will become more interesting and useful among Foursquare users – when they enhance a shared experience and are driven by the context around which the check-in takes place.
The partnerships Foursquare is creating with certain brands will help increase its value and reach. The CNN Super Fan badge during the World Cup is awarded to users who check in multiple times at CNN-selected locations associated with the Cup. But why not unite friends on Foursquare — and anyone they share their check-ins with on Twitter and Facebook — by having badges that support certain countries if you check in at a location that supports a particular team, or use a team’s name in your check-in? If I had to go to a Ghanaian bar in Lefferts Garden, Brooklyn to get the Ghana badge, then dammit, I would! They say Americans don’t care about soccer, but I know quite a few people that would have done whatever they could for a “Team USA” badge, and it could have been a huge opportunity for Foursquare to get more check-ins, more traffic, and more new users, outside of specific locations. This would promote even more connection around shared experiences.
I know that apps such as Miso , which allows uses to “check in” to TV shows they watch, are designed for connecting people around particular events, not just locations. I think it would increase Foursquare’s value to add such a feature. When I see how much conversation is generated by fellow sports fans during a single game, I see opportunity and value in combining location, events and badges into a single connected experience. It’s only natural.