Swarm: the spin-off app from Foursquare
Swarm: the spin-off app from Foursquare
A view from Will Francis

Why people won't be swarming around Foursquare's new app

As Foursquare officially relaunches as a recommendation service, Will Francis, co-founder and director of social media agency Harkable ponders what the implications might be for the location-based app's user base.

After five years being synonymous with the ‘check-in’, location-based networking app Foursquare is set to officially re-launch this week as a local recommendation service, going up against the likes of Google and Yelp in the race to crack SoLoMo (social, location, mobile).

Like all social networks, Foursquare has had to evolve to keep up with consumer expectations. Despite its best efforts, the check-in never managed to catch on.

The famous check-in feature has been relegated to a secondary app, Swarm, which launched to mixed reviews back in May. With the original Foursquare service effectively being split in two, many are arguing the company has taken too radical a step in refreshing its service and undermined what made it great in the first place, namely the check-in.

Sticky social

Foursquare has always been a master-class in creating sticky social media. The app was built on a simple concept: to allow users to check-in to locations and map activity, interact with their environment via mobile and locate friends. It was the playfulness of the service and the addictive nature of competing for ‘badges’ and ‘mayorships’ that kept its users coming back for more.

But by hiving off the check-in to what is effectively a sub-product, Foursquare risks undermining the user experience that it spent years perfecting and alienating its loyal audience as a result (which after all is still 50 million-strong).

Initial responses playing out across the blogosphere also suggest moving between the two apps is already a far from seamless experience. It’s likely this is going to be yet another example of a beautifully simple tech product attempting to adapt and making a mess of it in the process.

The SoLoMo conundrum

Re-launching as a local discovery app also means Foursquare is moving into tough territory and pitting itself against strong competition. Though GPS technology is now so commonplace that it can be found in almost every handbag and pocket, social, location and mobile is still proving a tough triumvirate to leverage. That means Foursquare is propelling itself into a market that isn’t even fully formed yet and with no guarantee of success.

Though it has come up against its own problems, Google looks to be the most likely player to crack SoLoMo at this point. Its ubiquitous Maps app, which has just seen the addition of local recommendations, will prove a formidable competitor to the newly launched Foursquare.

There’s a huge space for a company to step in and own SoLoMo, with all the benefits for brands and marketers that it would bring. Foursquare could very well prove its detractors wrong and beat everyone to the punch, but considering Google’s vast data pools and infinitely greater resources, it seems unlikely.

Time for change?

Like all social networks, Foursquare has had to evolve to keep up with consumer expectations. Despite its best efforts, and even being picked up as an add-on feature by the likes of Facebook, the check-in never managed to catch on beyond tech enthusiasts and social media aficionados. That’s a big part of why Foursquare is being forced to try other approaches.

The problem lies in just how far the company is choosing to evolve. After spending years developing its unique brand and service, it just feels a little late to be totally reinventing itself now. You have to admire Foursquare for its bravery. But is relegating the feature that made it famous the best way to re-launch the service? I’m not convinced.

If it had succeeded in making the check-in a mainstream activity, a valuable new layer of user profiling, social functionality and ad targeting would have become possible. As it is, Foursquare’s re-launch might turn out to be too radical a pivot away from its original product and another promising app may fall to the wayside?