Foursquare talks TV Check-ins, badges, and the future

How can we make the mobile experience more interesting in the real world? That’s the question Foursquare asks itself every day according to head of product Alex Rainert as he sits down with Pocket-lint to talk company mission and the future of location-based apps.

“There are certain benefits to being mobile,” he tells us as he outlines the advantage. “Everything we do is for the mobile user.”
As smartphones become a common fixture around the world, individuals and businesses alike are looking for ways to bridge the gap between the on-screen experience and everyday life. At the forefront of this mobile trend is Foursquare, the location-based check-in service fueling mob mentality.

“Location-based services are not just about a fringe experience powered by brands and merchants. Foursquare, has always aimed to be a tool to better experience the world around you, whether that’s letting you know when two of your friends are around the corner or whether your favourite bar happens to have a drink special on.”

Rainert puts heavy emphasis on Foursquare’s quest to make people’s lives more fun with the smartphone as a compass and the service as a mobile North Star. This rather idealistic vision sits in stark contrast with how the media has taken to portraying the company - as a multi-million dollar mega start-up whose founders recently appeared in Gap ads as well as trawling for TV partnerships.

Instead, Rainert describes Foursquare as a service designed to create meaningful life experiences.

“You get off work at 7pm, you can open Foursquare and it will give you five things you can do in the real world. It's about the power of how smartphones can genuinely enhance your life experiences. We don’t want you to be lost in your phone for twenty minutes, the idea is to interact with Foursquare and then go do it.”

One of the key ways, Rainert reasons, that this works is with the idea of Foursquare badges. The badges are virtual profile rewards for real life achievements and are where that elusive cross over between the online and offline takes place.

“We want the Foursquare badges to represent certain behaviors that we think will be good for our users,” he explains.

“We hope the experience it took to get the badge will involve different behavior beneficial for the user. Take for example the Pizzaiolo badge. It’s about the experience it took to get there. The change in behavior of trying 20 different pizza places with new people in new neighborhoods. These are the meaningful behaviours we’re trying to create.”

As altruistic as it sounds, it’s those “meaningful behaviors” that have attracted a fair amount of attention from businesses hoping to cash in on the firm’s check-in system, and leverage people’s drive to acquire badges for their own benefit. So, which is it? Is Foursquare a fun tool or the viable marketing channel that analysts make it out to be?

According to Rainert, it’s just too early to be the latter with marketers and brand experts still learning how to best to get to grips with the service.

“Truthfully, only four per cent of people use location based services - it already feels like a huge space but it’s still tiny. For companies or brands it’s a great opportunity to engage with their customers in the real-world but it’s not impressions on an article, it’s like ‘I am literally at Radio Shack and I’ve redeemed is special.’”

But Foursquare, he says, is already so much more than offers at local pizza joints. The future, according to Rainert, is about using the service to interact with one’s favorite TV shows, finding deals, sharing pictures and tapping into the new aspects of the social web.

In a world where e-commerce storefronts, businesses, and even news sources move towards a more social version of the web, Foursquare certainly maintains an interesting position - a web experience based on recommendations from friends, tips, and sharing, relegated to the mobile space but Rainert admits there are still limitations plaguing full adoption of location-based services.

“It’s still early, and there are lots of things that we need to work out. For example, smartphone penetration is good right now, but it’s not 100%. Also, we’re working with lots of phones that have poor GPS signal. We’re doing the best we can with the technology we have but it could be infinitely better.”

As it goes, these might well be the least of the company’s problems. Foursquare played an important role in shifting the world’s focus from the Internet to the mobile Internet, but now that the trend has caught on, the company faces competition most tellingly of all from one of the biggest players in the game - Facebook.

With the launch of Facebook Places, Fourquare goes head on with a monstrous enemy in the mobile check-in realm. In our conversation, Rainert minimizes the possible threat by explaining that Foursquare is focused on the mobile front whereas Facebook is primarily Internet-based with mobility features as an added bonus but, it’s hard to believe that, behind closed doors, there isn’t quite a sense of panic spreading.

Mobile to Zuckerberg Inc. might be an “added bonus” but, when you’re talking about a company of that size, it’s going to leave an enormous footprint and Foursquare is going to be under much more pressure as Facebook continues to infiltrate the mobile space. Facebook CTO Bret Taylor has confirmed its desire to move more into the area describing mobile devices as “inherently social” and “already filled with your contacts and your friends” as well as “access to your location”.

Facebook’s encroachment into the mobile space combined with its dominating traffic numbers and appeal to marketers may mean serious trouble for Foursquare in the future. Particularly in the realm of advertising where Foursquare has yet to really figure out a way to integrate marketing features beyond check-in discounts. Facebook on the other hand rolled out a new “sponsored stories” advertising feature that uses check-ins to spread word of a brand via newsfeed, something that will no doubt appeal to major brands.

To make matters worse, Facebook recently unveiled Facebook Deals in the UK, a location-based service that offers rewards for check-ins using Facebook Places. If the folks at Foursquare weren’t nervous before, they certainly should be now. In Foursquare’s defence, Facebook Deals was rolled out in the States back in November and Foursquare still exists, attesting to the company’s cult following, but for how long can Foursquare stand against the 500 million user strong brand?  

The one thing Foursquare still holds in its favour against the Facebook business model is, well, character. Despite the New York City-based startup going international, there is still a group of loyal fans who want badges like the Pizzaiolo badge or the TSA inspired “I got my baggage handled” badge. By keeping this small company mentality perhaps Foursquare has a chance, but that’s not to say Facebook won’t give the underdog a run for its money. With more and more businesses gravitating towards the social networking beast for real-life benefits through location-based technology, the stage is set for a modern day epic.

Do you use Foursquare and Facebook Places? Do you think that they can both survive together? Let us know in the comments.