Foursquare returns to its roots in bid to win back users

Mobile World Congress 2012
A smartphone displays Foursquare Technologies Inc. branding beside a Google Inc. Mobile Wallet card stand on display at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, on Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. The Mobile World Congress, operated by the GSMA, expects 60,000 visitors and 1400 companies to attend the four-day technology industry event which runs Feb. 27 through March 1. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Chris Ratcliffe — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Foursquare, the location-based social network where users check in to physical locations, is hoping to regain some of its old magic. The company lost favor with long-time users (including myself) after splitting its core mobile application into two services last year.

Out of the 55 million users Foursquare has, my user ID of 131,027 pegged me as an early adopter. When the company enabled users to apply for Super User privileges to help cleanup its venue database, I was accepted and quickly worked my way up to Super User Level 3; a feat one Foursquare employee told me was so rare it was akin to being a celebrity.

For years I religiously used Foursquare. No matter how mundane my day was, I checked in each step of the way: Gas stations, fast food restaurants, my own Mom’s house; nothing was off limits.

I was a vocal cheerleader who organized meet-ups, celebrated Foursquare day every April 16, and stocked my closet with Foursquare shirts. I wanted nothing more than Foursquare to succeed.

And then the split came: The check-in mechanism was ripped out of Foursquare to create a second app called Swarm. The digital badges I had— and at times obsessed over—all but disappeared, replaced by meaningless stickers. Mayorships, a title awarded to a Foursquare user with more venue check-ins than anyone else, lost its flair.

The Foursquare app was demoted to a recommendation engine built off of the company’s Explore engine. The beauty of Explore is that the more you checked-in, the more accurate the app’s suggestions were, but with the heart of Foursquare’s original appeal ripped out and thrown into an inferior app, my use faded over time.

Slowly, my routine of checking into a venue no longer had any value. I all but stopped using Swarm, and rarely relied on Foursquare recommendations when I traveled. Without my check ins, suggestions about where I should eat lost the personal connection it once had.

Then last week, Foursquare issued a mea culpa of sorts by releasing Swarm version 2.3, a somewhat Hail Mary for its most loyal users. The move was the company’s way of “putting that fun back into Swarm in a big way,” said CEO Dennis Crowley in an interview with TechCrunch.

It was obvious having fun was front and center after the update. An animated machine with the familiar Foursquare Marsbot sitting atop the screen was waiting to convert my old badges into stickers. There are 100 stickers in total to be found, but how you find them all remains a mystery.

The re-gamification of check ins will unlock stickers at venues, or when certain phrases are typed, which is kind of like the digital equivalent of a passport stamp. Stickers can then be used to mark an occasion, send in a message to another Foursquare user, or placed in photos attached to your check-in.

According to reports, Swarm will have true Mayorships once again, along with a new aspect called Coins (a scoring system of sorts that has yet to be announced). Who knows, perhaps you’ll be able to buy physical goods or receive discounts in exchange for coins.

I can’t say whether incorporating old Foursquare into the new Swarm is going to lead to renewed growth and win back users the company has lost over the past year. However, what I can say is that I’ve checked in every chance I’ve had since the update was released.

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