evolution of foursquare

Friends, colleagues, and twitter followers hear me daily boast about the different mobile apps I use on a regular basis that I’m excited about.  Mobile technologies and applications are growing at exponential rates making it easier to interact, shop, search, discover, play, research, read, and the list goes on and on.  The number of companies and applications that have been born specifically targeting mobile usage is practically impossible to track.  As connected as I am to digital media blogs and tech update streams, I’m still finding companies that have been operating for a year that are innovating in ways never seen before.  The best of these applications look to change the way we interact with and navigate through the world we live in.  Foursquare‘s mission is simple: to build software to make the world easier to use, and already over 10 million people have tried this mission out.  Over 17 million merchant locations are also on the foursquare platform.  Many users have preconceived notions of what foursquare is and isn’t – and with the continued aggressive developments and enhancements it’s almost a totally new and different application now than when you may have used it last.  Since the launch at SXSW in 2009 I’ve seen an evolution of foursquare, and hope to simplify it here so you begin to leverage one of the best applications available today.  It has changed the way I interact with the world and hope it helps you as well.  I wish I had the time or the design skills to create a cool Infographic – maybe another time.

1. The Check-In Craze

When foursquare initially launched, its functionalities were somewhat limited in comparison to today’s capabilities.  It directed users to primarily ‘check-in’, which is to mark that you’ve entered a specific establishment, business, or location with the mobile app.  With the integration of Facebook and Twitter, a user could publish that they were at this location or event to their social-graph.  In my day, I’ve been accused of facebragging, which of course is the act of using social networking sites in order to show off or impress others with material items and/or fun activities.  This can include status updates, comments, or most often, pictures.  When I was at a concert, I would check-in.  At the newest and hottest restaurant or club in town, check-in.  Doing something mundane or boring, wouldn’t check-in!  Because of the fact that I was an early adopter I didn’t have a choice but to wait for more friends to join so I could start using it for other intended uses.  One of the common answers I hear when I ask people if they’re on foursquare is “No, I don’t like people to know where I’m at.”  Fair enough.  However that was sooooo 2009.   Read on for how they’ve changed.


2. Competition and Rewards 

The next phase I soon started to see in the evolution was the aggressive but friendly competition caused by foursquare’s uniquely created game mechanics.  The more you check-in, the more points, rewards, and badges you begin to accumulate.  Check-in at a concert with 50+ people and you’ll be sporting a ‘Swarm‘ badge or check-in while  you’re on a boat and you’ll unlock the ‘I’m on a Boat‘ badge.  Foursquare‘s location based algorithms go to work by awarding check-in points based upon your activity.  By switching it up and checking into a park or beach you can score more points then if you stroll into the same coffee shop each morning (unless of course you’re the mayor and that’s a whole other story).  What’s quite incredible about this experience is that it does something to you psychologically.   If you’re anything like me and you must win (or attempt to) at everything, then you find yourself exploring your city just so you can rack up more points than all of your friends that week.  To encourage increased competition a weekly Leaderboard is created to show you where you stand in comparison to your friends.  Checking into a location more than any other user will give you the coveted ‘Mayorship’.  This means that you’re hands down the coolest person in that establishment at that given moment.  Pretty sweet, huh?  Find a trendy spot that is popular on foursquare, and you’ll see people fighting to check-in so that they can steal the mayorship away from each other.  Let’s take the game mechanics out of the picture here for a second.  For once you have an application that’s pushing customers back to a business, just so they can capture the ultimate invisible seal of approval.  It sounds crazy, but try it – it’s addicting and fun.  Nobody likes to lose – but even if you do at least you can say you traveled to a lot of fun places.  Still not convinced on why you need foursquare?  I’m sure if I can save you money that’ll do the trick.


3.  Bring on the Deals

This is the phase that I’m most passionate about.  I could (and will) write a post just on this capability alone because of it’s magnitude on the way we interact with the world.  If you’re not into the points or badge side of things – you will certainly be persuaded to move the foursquare app to the home screen of your iPhone or Android after you learn about this capability.  Think for a minute about the intrinsic benefits one could have by being rewarded for going to a business and just promoting that they’re there.  Foursquare added a new layer onto their platform that allows users to unlock specials and deals by doing just that.  Despite your social status everyone loves a deal, especially when you can get a free cocktail or 10% off your total bill by just checking in.  Who controls these specials is the actual business themselves, and you better believe foursquare gives them plenty of ways to encourage loyalty.  Here are just a few that are available today:

  • Check-In Special: unlocked with every check-in
  • Newbie Special: unlocked on first check-in
  • Mayor Special: unlocked for the mayor
  • Loyalty Special: unlocked after 3-5 check-ins
  • Special Offer: just because, really just unlocked at the business’s discretion
  • Friends Specials: check-in with a friend and get a special
  • Swarm Offers: if a certain amount are checked in – everyone gets a special
  • and the list keeps growing and growing…
From a practicality standpoint, think of your lunch hour at work.  You’re hungry, but not too picky on the location of your cravings.  Simply open up the foursquare app, and you can search all of the business around you that are offering specials.  Not to get too technical on you, but each time someone checks-in – that creates a data point that is extremely useful.  They know what time people go to which businesses.  Also, the app can suggest businesses to go based off historical check-ins.  If you seldom check-in at fast food restaurants, but typically side towards the cafe or boutique restaurants – than that’s what the app will suggest.  Last year the foursquare team announced a massive partnership with American Express.  Essentially how the partnership works is users can sync their Amex card to their foursquare account, and then “load” to their mobile devices and redeem merchant specials without the need for coupons or special codes.  Follow the link here to sync your card today to get crazy specials for just clicking a button.  I tried it first hand when I went to the U.S. Open Tennis match in New York.  I checked in at the U.S. Open and was directed to “load” my credit card with a ‘spend $20 and get $10 off promotion.’  I purchased a souvenir that was $20 but when I received my credit card statement that month it charged me $10.  The simplicity of saving money by just using a mobile app which takes 10 seconds truly does disrupt traditional advertising as we know it.  This new brilliant form of marketing is nothing short of modern day mobile genius.  Still not sure why you could use foursquare?

4.  Radar

Okay, if you haven’t already downloaded the app by now, I’ll wait. Go ahead….download it.  The recent launch of Radar is a feature that wouldn’t have been possible without the mobile developments recently achieved.  Essentially the Radar feature acts as a tracking beacon; notifying you when you walk past a place with an offer, or asking you if you’d like to check-in a location based off your personal GPS signal.  It takes all of the data foursquare knows about you like where your friend’s check-in overlaid by trends such as places you go and what time of day you go there to deliver to you suggestive places to visit.  Imagine leaving work and several of your friends are meeting up for a happy hour.  With Radar, it’ll ping you directly with this important information.  Radar also maximizes something foursquare calls Lists.  Imagine your local newspaper’s food editor hand selecting 10 of their favorite restaurants in your neighborhood or city.  By following this list Radar will notify you when you’re close to any of those restaurants.  Also, over 500 brands have already created their own ‘Lists’ that anyone can follow.  From the History Channel listing historical places throughout the country to VHI pinging you when you’re near cool places with musical relevance this feature turns your phone into a smart predictable engine for exploration.  It’s this feature alone that no other application has successfully created to date.

5.  Explore Your City like a Conquistador
The last phase that we’re currently in brings together all of the previous functionalities of the foursquare app, but delivers it up into an incredibly designed searchable interface, called Explore.  Historically speaking the web’s traffic really started with search.  If you’re searching to buy new clothes or electronics, or trying to find out about breaking news updates – your journey on the internet typically started with a search engine like Google, Bing, or Yahoo.  However, in recent years the traffic on the internet has shifted towards social.  Rather than searching local news sites for articles of interest, you click the links your friends are posting on their status updates or tweets.  Your friends tell you where to shop, what restaurant to eat at, what movies are good, and what’s happening this weekend in your area.  This monumental shift in traffic has allowed sites like Yelp, Groupon, Zagat, Urbanspoon, and countless others to continually capture users into the tens and hundreds of millions.  Explore is foursquare’s answer to sites comprised of recommendations, ratings, reviews, and tips.  This is accessible via your mobile device as well as its recently launched web version of the site: https://foursquare.com/explore.  This will not only show you businesses near your current location, but also aggregates your entire foursquare social graph including check-in history as well as tips and recommendations made by your friends.  If you’re on your computer and find a cool spot you’d like to checkout, click the save button.  Remember the Radar feature? (sure you do)  Now the next time you’re near this location, your phone will thoughtfully remind you.  What I like most is you also have the ability to filter your search criteria, like places I haven’t been to yet, places I have been to before, places my friends have been to, and places with foursquare specials.  I also use Explore on my phone when I’m at a business.  Take a new restaurant I’ve never been to before.  I quickly open up the app, and search for tips and recommendations about the menu.  Many of these come directly from friends of mine, which we hold similar interests.  Now THIS is a game changer.  I urge you the next time you’re traveling in a city that’s unfamiliar; open up foursquare on your phone or laptop and away you go.  It’s your very own tour guide in the palm of your hand.


As history has taught us, it’s ever changing, evolving, innovating, growing, and developing; and so will foursquare.  You don’t need to be super techie to understand or even use foursquare.  It’s seriously one of the most user-friendly applications and does so much.  The more you play with it and allow it to be a part of your daily life, you’ll see it’s more than just collecting badges, bragging about where you’ve been or where you’re going, or even a way to save a quick buck.  This is a monumental shift in the way we interact with the world we live in.  Their mission is simple; to build software to make the world easier to use.  Download the app and use it for a few days and you be the judge of their mission statement.  These 5 elements to the application are just a taste of things to come.  Their team’s complete ignorance to everyday norms is what makes this one of the most innovative companies in recent history.

Steve Jobs once said that the best way to predict the future was to simply invent it.  What I love about foursquare is how they are changing and enhancing the way people interact with the world they live in.  Lastly, here’s foursquare’s latest videos explaining the application in a cool fashion.  Enjoy!


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