Foursquare finds opportunities in the past

Foursquare has been shifting its sights from the present to the future, looking at how it can help recommend where people should go. But the location-based network is also finding a lot of opportunities in the past.

I sat down with co-founder Dennis Crowley to talk about a slew of announcements the New York City–based company has put out in recent days, and one interesting thread was how the past has played a role in a couple of the more prominent updates. For example, the new ability to check in to events like sporting games, concerts and movies provides a lot more color to people’s check-ins and gives them a better sense of what they were doing when they checked in.

It’s helpful for brands and Foursquare partners and also helps build what Crowley calls “augmented memory,” assisting people in remembering what they’ve done in the past. Foursquare has already embarked on this by reminding people about the last time they checked in to a location. But with event check-ins, Foursquare can preserve memories more fully, serving more as a digital scrapbook or journal.

“In the same way people keep concerts stubs or movie tickets, we can do it digitally,” Crowley said.

Foursquare's curated lists

Foursquare’s new curated lists, introduced this week, also leverages the past by giving people the ability to put together lists of places they’ve gone to and share them with others. Users can grab locations they’ve been to and toss them into these lists, making their check-ins part of a lasting resource or recommendation for others.

Foursquare has also worked with Bravo TV, the History Channel and others to leave historical tips at interesting locations. Now it’s finding that politicians are interested in the same kind of thing, using Foursquare to remind people of their past accomplishments. For example, President Barack Obama, who joined Foursquare this week, will be using the check-ins not only to chart his movements but also to leave historical location-based information tips about his past accomplishments at various places.

Looking back and preserving the past is not Foursquare’s sole focus, but it is interesting to see how Foursquare and others are able to find value in these past check-ins. The big promise of Foursquare is still in prediction and recommendations, but all of this past data and the mechanism for tying it to locations is proving valuable in its own way.

Event check-ins

The major value of previous check-ins so far has been in feeding Foursquare’s Explore feature, which recommends places for people to go based on their past visits. Crowley said Explore has shown people the value of preserving their check-ins, because it leads to smart suggestions about where to go next. He likened it to Mr. Miyagi, from the Karate Kid, slowly teaching his student how to fight using simple lessons.

“We asked people to check in, which is like painting the fence. Now we’re teaching karate,” Crowley said. “It all goes into a recommendation engine that knows what you like and what else you’ll like.”

The next step for Explore, he said, will be to help people plan more for the future. Explore suggests places based on the present tense, but Foursquare is looking into allowing people to do more complex planning with Explore that takes into account the interests of friends that users plan to go out with.

In a lot of ways, Foursquare is not confined to just one use case. It is finding that there are a lot of interesting things that happen when you focus on location. Crowley compared Foursquare to a machine that’s being put together in increments, a process that’s quickened recently. The company is now up to 70 employees, and the increase of the latest 10 hires has helped pick up the pace of updates, contributing to this past week’s flurry of news.

Crowley said the company is still working out its revenue model and sees its daily deals partnerships with companies such as Groupon and Living Social as part of the solution but not the main engine in the future. He said the big key will be in providing tools for merchants, to help them manage and improve their relationship with customers. Foursquare provides those tools right now for free, allowing businesses to offer their own specials and get analytics back on user visits. But in the future, Foursquare is looking at charging for those tools, though there is no time frame, Crowley said.

“We’re now getting to the point where Foursquare users are expecting venues to participate, and as we get more mainstream, merchants will find a way to get on board,” said Crowley. “There’s no countdown clock [for charging merchants]. It’s when we’re ready. A lot of products are being developed, and when we feel like the tools provide value, we’ll think about that.”