In a digital age that is dominated by social media heavyweights like Facebook and Twitter, Foursquare is still trying to find its way to make its presence felt on a big scale. CEO Dennis Crowley has spent the last year trying to convince the world that Foursquare isn’t what it used to be. Emerging in 2009 with a novel app that let people “check in” at a certain location, it garnered enough funds and users with its launch across the globe. However, in 2014, the scenario has changed quite a lot.
Crowley reminds that they never wanted to be on the world map just for the invention of check-in button. That wasn’t their sole aim. Back in 2009, declaring your location was a necessity as the phones did not have the power to reliably pinpoint a user and Foursquare did not have much information on the places nearby. Amongst all this, Foursquare could not manage to find itself standing among the networking bigwigs. It struggled to make a place in the mainstream social media culture and was overtaken by younger start-ups. The company had created a new paradigm around location sharing, but that was never going to be as cool or popular as tweeting a recent activity or uploading a selfie. There was an urgent need for a radical change within. Crowley decided to do away with the check-in concept and along with his team, over the course of the past six months, has been working hard on the reinvention of the company. Finally, they decided to break Foursquare into two different apps.
Today the company announces the launch of its new fruit called Swarm that will exist alongside the original Foursquare app. It will be a social heat map, helping users find friends nearby and check in to share their location. A completely revamped Foursquare app will launch in a month or so. The new Foursquare will do away with the check-in and focus solely on exploration and discovery, finally positioning itself as a tool for great local search.
Starting from Scratch
The next era of Foursquare began in a room called “Don’t Stop Believing.” Crowley and his top management had spent the last couple of years shaping and reshaping the mobile apps and moving buttons around and changing the language. It was not working still, there was a time for a bigger change. In November 2013, he instructed them to break the app down into its basic parts, little Lego blocks that represented everything it could do and focused on building Foursquare from the scratch.
One of the blocks was called Pilgrim, the company’s dependent tech for guessing a user’s location. Another was the 60 million venues and points of interest the company gathered across the world in one of the largest databases of its kind. A lot of ideas sprang up as to how the service would look like in 2014 and the common consensus was that Foursquare needed to move out of its one-app mould.
This new approach from Foursquare was not the result of their gut feeling, instead it was based on their findings and research about the data that they had gathered about how people used or didn’t use their app. Noah Weiss, Foursquare’s Vice President, Product Management, analysed that only 1 out of 20 users used their app to find friends or restaurant. So in order to meet this need, they thought of breaking it into a separate app whereby 19 out of 20 times, tapping on one icon or the other, you would have satisfied your need completely.
Unbundling of Foursquare
Jon Steinback, Foursquare’s VP, Product Experience says that the more they played with the idea they realized that there was so much to do in order to enhance the experience. Their decision can be seen as a part of a larger trend in the mobile space to unbundle complex web properties into a suite of connected apps, rather than trying to jam numerous features into a single packaging. It is expected that Foursquare’s new divide might make more sense than the unbundling strategies that have been employed by Facebook, Twitter and Google. Steinback adds that the ever-increasing mobile space is a factor because of which they need to buck up on creating a mobile app that delivers the ultimate experience. You open the app to do a certain task and not as a gateway that could lead you to complicated experiences.
Having the check-in button as the main interface every time users opened the app created a forceful engagement. Bijan Sabet, one of Foursquare’s early investors and a current broad member explains this statement very aptly quoting the example of YouTube. Imagine you log into YouTube and the first thing you need to do is to create a video. Now, that would be a real hassle. Similarly, you don’t need to actually Tweet to have a great Twitter experience. Likewise, splitting the app made much more sense for a bigger audience who actually don’t need to check-in to explore Foursquare. During the months of testing, the company found that unbundling two halves of Foursquare made each experience more focused and efficient. Sessions become shorter and frequent. Now there was an app designed for search and discovery and Foursquare allowed users to toggle back and forth between the two apps with ease, just like Facebook does with its main app and the messenger app.
The Advent of Swarm
Swarm is expected to do well when it comes to discovering people around you at any given point of time. Foursquare’s rival in location sharing, Facebook, also announced a feature called “Nearby Friends,” a feature that resembles Swarm. However, it does not interest or bother Crowley as he says that a Facebook list is too big for people to be comfortable sharing their private data like their location. The introduction of check-ins by Facebook has not really been of any issues for Crowley.
A lot of apps like Highlight, Sonar, and Banjo, which helped down track friends and strangers were so broad that they bombed against the mainstream. As far as Swarm and Nearby Friends are concerned, they ease a user’s concern by providing a sense of which friends are close by without letting out much details. It actually uses passive location-sharing in a way that people are comfortable. When you check-in with Swarm, it also passively notes your general location even if you don’t open the app. For example, if you come out of a new neighborhood, Foursquare will understand it and update the status accordingly. Foursquare has an advantage over Facebook in terms of ambient location sharing. Those who download Swarm are making an exclusive decision to provide their data to a certain set of friends only.
Swarm is a big news today, but it is the changes that will occur within the Foursquare app which would define the growth of company in a big way. The novel logic that they have applied is that the feature of checking-in may only appeal to a very limited set of audience who would actually prefer using it at regular intervals whereas local search is a mainstream activity that anyone with a smart phone can resort to. This is the way through a local search to make it more accessible to people and thereby increase the user base.
Till now, Foursquare has collected a lot of check-ins, a staggering 6 billion in numbers but at the same time, it has also collected 5 billion signals to help it map out over 60 million places around the world. Foursquare’s “Pilgrim” location-guessing engine factors in everything right from the GPS signal, to cell tower triangulation, to the number of bars you have and the Wi-Fi networks. Now with this, Foursquare can make an accurate guess when you stop moving or even when you do not check-in. For example, you visit an Italian restaurant for ten times in a three month period, Foursquare will come to know that you are a fan of Italian cuisine and will make relevant suggestions based on this data. By doing so, its database is loaded with fresh new places. They are termed as “implicit check-ins” or Neighbourhood Sharing. Crowley feels that it would be wonderful if there were suggestions based on your past activities or choices and that would definitely make a lot of sense if one were to look upto Foursquare as a companion that would suggest as much as it can.
The new app is potentially well-planned and well-executed. Swarm, with its location sharing feature and suggestions, has made the world pretty small and that too on fingertips, especially when you are a chap that is always on the look-out for an activity around you, Swarm delivers it to you!