"What's happening?" asks Twitter. "What's on your mind?" asks Facebook. A question that's fast becoming more important to smartphone users, though, is simple: "Where are you?" And that's exactly what a new social network, Foursquare, aims to answer.
Foursquare might be relatively new on the scene, having launched just under a year ago, but it has recently made deals with a long list of major media companies. The New York Times and the Canadian freesheet Metro are on board, as well as HBO, Warner Brothers, the History Channel, Bravo, Lucky Magazine and restaurant guide Zagat.
How it works
Foursquare might sound like just another social networking site such as Twitter or Facebook, and it certainly has a similar function. The difference, though, is that it's location-aware: users arrive at a venue, often a bar or café, and 'check-in' on the site using their mobile phone. Instead of updating their status, as on Facebook, on Foursquare users update their location. Users can also leave tips, such as a particular drink to try at the bar they're visiting, and can see recommendations left by others.
Its appeal may seem unclear to casual users of social media, but for status-update junkies, it allows even more specific information to be shared. It also has a game element, where users can earn points for checking-in. With more check-ins, users are awarded 'badges'. And the user who checks-in most often at a particular location is known as its 'mayor'. Foursquare already has deals with a variety of venues that reward mayors with free drinks and other specials. This form of real-world reward for heavy use of a social network is something that Facebook and Twitter, while they may indeed have various tangible benefits for their users, have not formalised to the same extent.
Foursquare users also use the service to meet up with friends: rather than arranging in advance to meet for a coffee or a drink, users report checking Foursquare to see who is nearby and then going to meet them. This element of serendipity may appear to come with inconveniences as well. Fans of the site are clearly not dissuaded by this. Foursquare now registers over a million check-ins a week, a rate that has doubled in the last month.
Partnerships with newspapers
At first glance, a start-up social media company with a focus on bar reviews and meeting up with friends might seem like an unlikely partner for newspapers as established as The New York Times, or as widely distributed as the freesheet Metro. But at this stage, the deal seems to be less about news and more about the restaurant reviews so key to Foursquare's appeal.
Foursquare has announced a deal with The New York Times for the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games. Users who follow The Times on Foursquare will receive recommendations for restaurants, attractions, shopping and nightlife. These are written by the paper's travel and entertainment writers. A badge will be on offer to users who check-in to two of the recommended venues. Mashable has pointed out the importance of this deal in offering relevant and contextual information to Olympics attendees, as it combines the precise location of the user with the trusted editorial of the respected newspaper.
The arrangement with Metro is similar. The newspaper will add its location-specific editorial to the social network, and Foursquare users in select Canadian cities will receive alerts when they're close to one of those locations. For example, users could get 'tips' delivered to their phone when they're close to a restaurant that features in a Metro review, with the capacity to link through to the full review on Metro's mobile site. Metro is also running a contest to promote the partnership: users who check-in to Foursquare near Metro distribution points will go in the running to win an iPhone. Of course, users necessarily enter the competition by using a smartphone, so the ads for the contest suggest that if winners already have one, they could give one to a friend. Metro is also featuring mayor deals, such as discounts and freebies, in its Going Out section every Friday. This is not only an advertising opportunity for local businesses, but also a revenue stream for the newspaper.
Metro Canada's Marketing and Interactive Director Jodi Brown points to the fit between a mobile social network and the highly mobile audience of the newspaper. "Metro has an audience that is moving around a lot down town," she says. "Our readers are younger, connected. The opportunity to offer Metro tips and information in a geo-targeted way seemed like a perfect fit for us."
The partnership is aimed at driving people to the iPhone application as well as to the print newspaper. It is expected to affect advertising revenue positively, she says, particularly for local businesses such as restaurants and bars. She adds that such businesses like to get involved with a new service such as Foursquare with the added reach and insurance of being in a newspaper that has 1.2 million readers nationally.
The more partnerships it forms, the more interest Foursquare generates, which in turn is likely to drive sign-ups and use of the service. It's beneficial for newspapers as well, as it means their editorial is delivered directly to readers on their mobile phones. The gaming or competitive aspect of the service also seems to drive repeat use, making it attractive to restaurants, cafes and other businesses that wish to advertise in newspapers and offer mayor specials.
The deals have clear benefits for users: under this arrangement, content arrives at the moment when it will be most useful for them. Of course, this comes with a trade-off: Foursquare's advertising guide explains that the social service itself can tell businesses how many times a particularly customer has been to their venue, or how frequently they visit. Plus, sharing one's location leads to concerns about privacy, prompting the creation of sites such as Please Rob Me, which aggregates check-in information and frames it as 'empty homes' and 'new opportunities'.
More positively, though, deals between Foursquare and newspapers create the possibility of sending location-specific local news direct to users' mobile phones, something that Metro is exploring. "Certainly geo-targeted local news information would be an even more interesting application," Ms Brown says. "Let's say you check in to a local museum, and Metro can give you a news tip, say, 'Did you know that in 2004 there was a murder?' Trivia, local information, anything that can enrich the experience of moving around your city."
She adds that Metro is still working out what kind of information its readers want to know while they are moving around. As a city-based paper, though, it has the potential to offer targeted local news. "You're checking-in to your university, and we're delivering you a topical piece of news about policy changes," she suggests. This is something the paper is still working on and no launch date has been established yet.
There are many possibilities for newspapers to partner with Foursquare creatively. It will be very interesting to see what comes next for the fledgling social network.