2011: The Year the Check-in Died

Guest author Mark Watkins is the CEO and co-founder of Goby, an inspiration engine for finding fun things to do. Prior to Goby Mark led R&D at Endeca, a search and business intelligence software company. You can follow him at @viking2917.

In July 2010, Foursquare had 2 million users performing 1 million check-ins per day. By the end of the year, that number had risen to 5 million users performing 2 million check-ins per day. Impressive growth, yet this means check-ins per user declined from 0.5 per person to 0.4. It also suggests that many of those five million users aren’t active.

The trend for Facebook Places is even worse. Facebook had at least 30 million members check in at least once in a shorter time frame as a newer service with a larger built in user base. Yet Facebook Places offers even less value than a Foursquare check-in. There are no points to win and no discovery element like tips; it’s just a flat statement that, “I am at Starbucks.” As a result, early indications are that Facebook check-ins strongly lag Foursquare check-ins.

The other day, I checked in for lunch at the Ace Hotel in New York City, an epicenter of the digital elite, and, according the Foursquare, the single most checked-into hotel in the world. The place was packed and I could barely get through the door, much less find a place to sit down. Yet, over the course of my two-hour stay, only three other people checked in.

Why Check-ins Are Going to Falter

In 2011 check-ins are going to go the way of the eight-track tape and disappear. You probably already see this happening. How many of your friends are consistently checking in and broadcasting? How many “I just ousted Fred as the mayor of Starbucks” messages do you see in your stream? Across my network – a large and tech-savvy network – I see less than 1% of people checking in on any service, and the trend is down. Some people are undoubtedly checking in privately, but that has major (negative) implications for how a service can spread.

Both Yelp and Facebook have the advantage of huge audiences who visit the services with a clear purpose. People are on Facebook to socialize, and on Yelp looking for a great restaurant. Check-in services aren’t going to replicate this scale or focus of audience in the short run, making it hard to make check-ins a mainstream activity. A number of check-in services have effectively already thrown in the towel; BriteKite abandoned its check-ins entirely and Gowalla integrated itself with Facebook and Foursquare check-ins.

All of this doesn’t mean, however, that Gowalla, Foursquare, MyTown, Loopt and all the services with check-ins at their core are necessarily going out of business. It does mean they need to find a way to deliver deep value to people beyond the check-in. And unless Facebook and Google provide more value than they currently do, their check-in services will languish as well.

Let’s take a look at why check-ins are going to falter and then explore some areas for delivery of deep, lasting value.

Why do people check in? Why should they?

  • Finding people near you, a.k.a. serendipity: When your friends happen to be at the same location, it’s like magic. Especially useful at conferences, this is check-ins at their best.
  • Points and the hoped-for rewards: Whether it is rewards on SCVNGR or deals on Foursquare, people hope to get a discount: a free appetizer, a dollar off coffee. These deals are in their very early stages on location-based services.
  • To remember things: In new cities or new venues, I’ll often check in (privately) just to remember the place I went. Marshall Kirkpatrick has discussed this use case as well.
  • Personal branding: While most people wouldn’t use this term, it is what’s going on. People are creating a personal online identity for themselves, showcasing who they are by telling everyone what they’re doing. (Less charitably: they’re bragging, and I’m just as guilty of it as most).

Here’s why none of these are going to lead to significant growth for the LBS players.

  • The serendipity factor is very much a creature of big cities, certain demographic segments, and New York in particular. If you’re in New York, where all your friends are within 10 blocks of you and can quickly get from one location to the next, this is actually awesome. But it’s not so hot in big cities like Los Angeles that are too spread out for these serendipitous moments to happen.
  • Games are fun for about two weeks, but most don’t have staying power. Like a lot of folks, I really dig Call of Duty: Black Ops, but I can only kill so many zombies before it’s time to do something else. Games are a novelty and have a very finite shelf life. So long as check-ins are “just a game”, they’ll be subject to the short life cycle of a game.
  • Remembering things holds promise of long-term value; a digital memory bank of places I’ve been could be really handy. It’s just not clear that most people really need it. Unless you spend all your time traveling and going new places, there’s just not that much to remember.
  • Personal branding is most common amongst the digital elite – the bloggers, social media mavens, tech execs (ok, I plead guilty). Outside a niche set of people who want the personal branding (or ego boost) of the check-in, most people not only don’t want to check-in, but they don’t know why they should. Most women I talk to are creeped out by broadcasting their location.

Next page: How do check-in services go mainstream?

Photo by KecMec

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I would definitely like to remember where I spent my time. That’s why I do use Google Latitude, which provides a dashboard with statistics of where I’ve been.
However, I rarely go to the same merchant, especially restaurants so that I barely can get any decent discount from these merchants. Not to mention that the merchant owners may have hard time to understand how the check-in games connects to their business.
It’s still great to socialize with friends nearby. Though most of time I went to a place on purposes so that it’s kind of difficult to change my destination or purpose because my friends check-ins nearby.
I believe LBS will be blooming. It’s just the game would be different.

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