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Checking In is Still a Niche, but you need to worry now

I should be one of Foursquare's biggest users. But alas, I am not. Why? Well, it's just too complicated to check in.

A lot of Location Based Service (LBS) fanboys are going to say things like "But Chuck, it's so simple!" But you're wrapped up in the coolness of it. For most people, checking in has become a cumbersome and only occasional activity. That said, I think it's still going to be big.

Yes, that's right. Despite the fact that I don't use LBS all that often, I believe it's going to be huge. But it won't look like what it does today.

First, let's examine the problems. Checking in requires me to have a motivation. Early in Foursquare's existence I heard a lot about the gaming aspect of it, and for some early users that drove adoption. Now companies like Foursquare, SCVNGR and Gowalla are turning to deals to get you to check in. Certainly better than earning a mayorship or points, but if the number of unclaimed coupons that still land on the doorsteps of people receiving the Sunday paper are any indication, deals only go so far. How many of you now ignore the Groupons and Living Social deals cluttering your inbox? Yeah, I'm raising my hand on that one too.

Foursquare has more than 6 million registered users, but I haven't seen many numbers that address the percentage of those users who are active. I have seen numbers about the number of checkins, but I'm not sure what percentage of users generate what number of checkins. If anyone has that data please let me know.

So what's my motivation to check in? On Tuesdays I like to check in at Taste to let people know that our OpenPR coffees are happening. Sometimes I check in to a restaurant if I love their food or to just give them a bit of promotion. Sometimes I check in so people in the area know where to find me, like if I'm at Sip in Post Office Square. But usually I go through life without checking in.

Mainly, my problem is that it takes between 4 and 6 actions to check in.

  1. Pull out phone
  2. Open application
  3. Find my location (sometimes made easier if it's a place I frequent)
  4. Check in
  5. Write comment (optional)
  6. Take picture (optional)

One of the things that made the Flip camera so successful was the single button operation. Who wants to go through 4 to 6 actions just to check in? (I'm not so crazy, Dennis Crowley brought the same issue up during his AdAge interview and they're experimenting with some different type of checkins as well.)

So what will change things? One word: payment.

Payment is the one action that everyone takes on a regular basis. There are exceptions, of course, like when you show your pass to get into a gym or yoga studio, but even that amounts to a sort of payment. The key is when payment moves from credit card or cash to the mobile phone. Square is probably the closest to making this a reality, considering its announcement today, but other (rather large) companies are, in fact, working on Near Field Communication-based solutions as well.

Regardless, one thing is for certain, we'll soon pay with our cell phones and, if all goes well, check in at the same time.

But, a funny thing will happen on the way to Foursquare nirvana: noise. Lots and lots of noise.

Imagine how useful your Facebook feed will be when all you see is "Chuck just bought a 2-shot small cappuccino at Taste." So the trick for companies will be to figure out when to encourage sharing and when to hold back. The same will be true for individuals. If I clog my friends' feeds with junk, then they're more likely to block me.

The interesting thing is, in order for any organization to understand how a tool works and what makes it effective, they need to begin working with it BEFORE it takes off. So if you have a business that relies, in some part, on location (like a retail store or a well-trafficked office) I would encourage you to play with Foursquare or one of the other services. See what incentives motivate your audience to check in. Measure the reach of those checkins, then see how you can drive traffic through them.

The goal is to avoid being background noise later.

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Stop! Please Stop!

Can we please stop comparing Boston to San Francisco and New York? Please? I'm getting sick of this discussion. It doesn't mean much.

I grew up just outside of New York City, I went to grad school there and remain a loyal fan of the New York Jets (no, that doesn't make me all that popular in Newton). But I chose to live in Boston. Two of my three children were born here,

Let me repeat that: I chose to live in Boston. Boston didn't choose me. Todd is also a transplant (though, I hear he gave up rooting for the Detroit Lions, can you blame him?) and he also chose to be here. There is something about this city that we love, something about the people, the culture and the environment that makes it important enough to start a company here.

Each city has its advantages and different culture. Yes, New York has a 24 hour culture and a vibrant financial market that keeps much of the rest of the city humming (the taxi drivers and Broadway producers all feel the boost when Wall Street gives out good bonuses). Silicon Valley has a vibrant startup culture with great weather and entrepreneurs who become celebrities. But Boston has a quiet confidence that I find endearing. We are who we are, we're not something else.

The main reason I hate these comparisons is that we look to the companies we lost (Facebook, Microsoft, TaskRabbit, Pixable, etc.) and ask "why! why would you leave us? We could have loved you!" Frankly, it's a bit embarrassing. Love the one you're with. But the problem isn't that those cities are cooler, it's that the companies (and their founders) were better fits for those cultures. Rather than focusing on that, maybe we should be focusing on creating companies that fit OUR culture.

Many years ago Evernote CEO Phil Libin told me that Silicon Valley is better for consumer-facing companies while Boston is better for research-based companies that feed government and defense contracts as well as enterprise technology. Of course, we also have a vibrant healthcare and biotech community. Why fight that? Why lament when a consumer company leaves and we're left with very interesting technology that could help create a cure for cancer or change how we get power?

Zigging when everyone else is zagging can be a very good thing. An article in the Wall Street Journal points out that enterprise technology in the Valley has fallen out of favor with VCs while investment in consumer technologies has increased. Sure, fine for them, we can benefit from that by focusing on our core.

As for being "cool," we shouldn't feel bad that we lost consumer-facing companies to other regions, we should be trying to point out how enterprise tech companies that innovate, build jobs and build revenue in Massachusetts are cool, even when they're doing something that seems mundane to the average eye, like helping organizations switch to IPv6. I sat next to a guy on the bus yesterday working on that very problem. No, it's not as easy to understand as a company that helps you get errands done, but it impacts a LOT more people.

Let's embrace who we are and stop worrying about who we aren't.

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Launch Your Website in a Day

I have a few upcoming events I want to call your attention to. The first is a day-long program aimed at people who need to get their web presence in line.

"Create a Killer Web Strategy for Your Business & Launch Your Website in a Day" is taking place on Saturday, May 14, 2011 from 8:30am to 3:30pm, and I will be one of four speakers / workshop facilitators helping out. If you need to build a new site, or are not happy with the messaging, performance or traffic on your existing site, this is the program for you.

The full-day program will help you bring your business strategy to your website. We'll work with you to determine the most effective design, message, tools and channels to achieve your business goals online. I'm helping with the section on promoting your site and building your community. Hope to see you there!

In this very hands-on program, we'll translate your strategy into technical features, visual design, copy and audience acquisition channels–then start implementing. Mini-seminars alternate with open work sessions and one-on-one consulting to help you reach your goals.

What You Need: Bring your positioning statement and your laptop. Each registrant receives a hosted website that is set up and ready to be customized. If you have a website already running on a content management system (CMS), you can opt to pick up from where you are and improve its effectiveness.

What You Get: You leave with your business website online and with the practical skills needed for ongoing development. Registration includes lunch and two months of hosting and phone/email support.

Cost: $420 | Drupal.org members (10% discount) $378 | Students with valid ID (20% discount) $336

Location:
One Marina Park Drive (near S. Station and Courthouse T stops)
GPS: 55 Northern Ave., Boston, MA 02210

REGISTER NOW

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