Finding a sandwich bar in a foreign city that offers gluten-free bread is rarely easy. But last week in Barcelona I found one. And there was only one reason I’d found Conesa: foursquare.
I have to admit - even as a user - I’d often questioned the value of the location-based app foursquare. When I went to SXSW in 2009, people were using it to find out where the parties were (alas I didn’t have a smartphone then, so I was out of the loop). In those early days of the app, it seemed like many of us were using it as bragging-tool, letting our Twitter followers know we'd just arrived at a trendy NYC bar or an upper class airline lounge (fortunately most of us disabled auto-sharing on Twitter long ago). Founder Dennis Crowley describes it as a service that ‘combines social networks, location awareness and game mechanics to encourage people to explore the world around them’. Which rings true, but still doesn’t nail the value for the user.
So whilst there were many fellow foursquare users in my network, few of us could have nailed its value back in 2009/10. Some were hooked by the gamification element, delighting in unlocking the badges that came with more check-ins, checking their weekly score. Sometimes the obsession became antisocial: I remember several meetings where the other person spent the first 60 seconds fumbling in their laps to check in to their venue on their phones.
I’m still on foursquare today, although I’m inconsistent in how I use it. I may check in at venues in London, but not at ones in my own neighbourhood. Sometimes I don’t want everyone to know where I am so I won’t check in at all. And if I’m working with a new client, I don’t think it’s my prerogative to announce that I’m at their offices unless I’ve cleared it with them first. So my foursquare data is not a full reflection of my movements.
My experience has reminded me that the value of a product or service is not always instantaneous, you need to play around with it before you 'get it'. So all these years later, here’s my ROI from being on foursquare:
- A special restaurant finder. As I’m gluten-intolerant, it’s hard finding restaurants and cafes that cater for me in a city I don’t know. Traditional search engines throw up too much noise - search on ‘gluten free restaurant Barcelona’ in Google and there’s a lot of irrelevance . But try searching ‘gluten free’ (or better, ‘sin gluten’ in Spanish) on foursquare and the results are specific to user tips at actual venues.
- A recommendation engine. When you’re in a new city and check in at different types of places (cafes, bars, art galleries), foursquare connects the dots with other user’s behaviour. Recently on a trip to Amsterdam foursquare told me that others who liked the cafe I’d been to and the gallery I’d visited also liked a suggested bar, which I then tried. Unsurprisingly it was my kind of place. It knows my habits.
- A location-based connector. Sometimes others in my foursquare network have found themselves near me with time to spare, and got in touch saying they happen to be on the same street. I’ve had several unplanned meet-ups with people that way.
So sometimes it takes time - and time to play - before you figure out the value of a digital product. Of course founders need to define the value of a service at launch, but once the product is out in the wild they also need to be brave enough to listen to their users about where the real value lies.