Why You'll Use Foursquare

Suddenly, there are two kinds of people. The first kind loves location-based social networking services like Foursquare. They speak in an alien language about "Mayors" and "Badges" and broadcast their locations to the world.

The second kind is trying hard to ignore these services and their fans. But it's getting harder to do because auto-generated Foursquare posts are increasingly showing up on Twitter and Facebook.

While Foursquare is the most popular of these services, some are using competitors like Gowalla, Loopt, Brightkite, Yelp, Whrrl and Google Latitude.

If you avoid location services, or are even actively hostile toward them, I'm here to deliver some bad news. Chances are, you'll eventually switch sides and become a user.

I'll tell you why in a minute, but first let me explain how Foursquare works at its most basic level.

You install an app on your location-aware phone. When you launch the app, the service figures out where you are, more or less. You're presented with nearby locations, which are mostly businesses. If you're in one of them, you pick it. If you're not, you can create your own location.

From that location, you can "check in" by pressing a button. Optionally, you can type in a Twitter-sized message. This check-in alerts your friends on that service where you are. If you've connected Foursquare to Twitter or Facebook, messages are posted in your stream or on your wall telling of your location and status.

Whoever has the most check-ins at a specific location becomes the Mayor of that location. Other users can see who the Mayor is. And Foursquare awards "Merit Badges" based on where you've checked in and how often, such as "Gym Rat," "Super Mayor" and "I'm on a boat!"

All this checking in, Mayor selection, merit badges and posting on social networks sounds pointless -- or at least like a slow, boring game. To others it feels like a whole lot of creepy stalking. But Foursquare and other location-based social networking services are about to morph into something entire compelling and different.

What's Happening Now

Marketers intend to make location-based social networking services worth your while by luring you in with coupons, discounts and exclusive deals.

The most obvious marketing program involves prizes for Mayors. For example, a coffeehouse might give a free latte to every new Mayor, providing an incentive for users to become repeat customers. Domino's Pizza in the U.K., for example, is doing this, and will give a free pizza each week to the Mayor of each restaurant.

Starbucks has a "Barista Badge" you can unlock if you check in at one of their locations five times.

Foursquare has established branded partnerships with the History Channel, CNN, Bravo, MTV, VH1, Zagat, The Wall Street Journal and other content creators.

The U.K.'s Financial Times is planning a campaign on Foursquare that offers premium content to people who check in at various coffee shops near business schools. The idea is to hook business students on the Financial Times newspaper so that when they enter the business world they'll want to be subscribers.

Six Flags Entertainment is really going nuts with the idea, offering a Foursquare "Six Flags Funatic Badge" and "Exit Pass" that lets users essentially cut in line for rides. The "Mayor" of each Six Flags park will win a free pass for the entire year (2011).

Foursquare badges are displayed on Bing Maps.

A start-up called Topguest is using check-ins from just about all the major location services to award hotel travel reward points.

A travel content company called PlanetEye has been running trials with Foursquare for using check-ins to identify spots popular with locals in Toronto and New York City.

What's great about this idea is that it can identify popular locations that have only become popular very recently. For example, festivals, concerts and other popular events. That means when you're a visitor in a strange city, you could find out where the nightlife is, where the cultural events are and where the locals go.

Eventually, location services like Foursquare will become like Costco membership. The only way to get access to low prices at some businesses will be to participate. Since it's free and easy, people will do it.

Network Effect

Enthusiasts and marketers are driving adoption. But another driver is something called network effect. As more people use services like Foursquare, using the service becomes more valuable.

A fast-growing number of users will leave notes, engage in location-based chat and use the services as an alternative to communicating via e-mail, text, chat, Twitter or Facebook. If you want to be in the loop, you'll want to join.

If you're at an event, you might want to interact with other people there. For example, at the World Cup, or during a boat race or at a school. Location services automatically create a temporary social network of whoever is near you.

If you attend industry conferences, you may find an increasing number of them putting all conference communication on location services. You'll be able to find colleagues, discuss presentations, find out logistical information -- but only if you join.

Resistance is Futile

The reason I say you'll soon use Foursquare or some other location service is that even if you don't embrace a location-based social networking, one is likely to embrace you.

The products and services and businesses you enjoy will increasingly offer incentives to persuade you to use location services. Companies, conference and event organizers, family and friends will be using location-based social networking.

Credible rumors suggest Facebook has had discussions with Foursquare about acquisition. That's one way in which a social service you're already using every day might soon be simply location-enabled in some profound way.

Location-based social networking is here to stay. And if you can't see any good reason why you might want to join one, just wait a bit. Someone will eventually come up with a reason for you.

You will be assimilated.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

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