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Why Foursquare Has It Backwards

Posted by: Katie Conneally on Tuesday, May 6 2014 03:37 PM

Foursquare Swarm logo

A few weeks ago in Little Rock, AR, I used the Foursquare app on my phone to look up nearby restaurants for dinner, and found a local fish spot that lived up to its 8.3/10 rating. The next weekend I was in Charleston, SC, and checked-in at a restaurant that one of my foodie friends, whose opinion I trust, had checked-in at previously. I knew I had made the right choice in toughing out the hour-long wait.

But it seems that I’m in the minority of Foursquare users, who both check-in to a location regularly, and use the discovery features to find new places to go. That’s why Foursquare announced this week that they’re splitting their app into two—one called Swarm that will just allow users to check-in to their location, and another that will keep the name Foursquare, but will function as a way to find crowdsourced recommendations nearby, similar to Yelp.

The logic, apparently, is that having to check-in is a barrier for potential users who don’t want to share their location, but might otherwise use and benefit from local search features and tips on restaurants, bars, and entertainment.

From a business perspective, this no doubt made sense to the Foursquare team (and investors) as a big step towards monetization and expansion for a startup that’s been struggling to do both. But from a brand perspective, there’s a risk the change in names and split experiences will alienate their core users who have spent the last five years building the mountain of data that makes this all possible.

Let’s start with Swarm. While it was a nice touch to pull the name from the existing Foursquare vocabulary  (“a place where a lot of people are checked in”), many people use Foursquare today for the opposite reason—because it connects them to curated network of like-minded friends that's often much, much smaller than their network on Facebook. A name that emphasizes the wider reach over the smaller circle may make current users wary of Foursquare’s intentions, and misses the point—as the internet continues to grow, there's value in being able to carve out your own niche.

There’s also the question of name equity. The Foursquare name has significant equity in the location-sharing space, and is most commonly associated with check-ins—even beating social Goliath Facebook at the check-ins space. Using the name for an app that will serve a completely different purpose, when its existing connotations might actually deter new users, doesn’t make much sense. Instead, going the opposite route and keeping Foursquare as the name for the check-in app would help maintain consistency during the change, and require less investment to rebrand.

Overall, splitting the brand experience in two to gain a new mainstream audience that pushes away current users feels shortsighted. Why not reimagine the experience for current users, and re-envision them as part of the team, building the data infrastructure that powers local search? There’s certainly power in making people feel useful. Or, why not turn Foursquare into an ingredient brand, with myriad possibilities for partnership? What starts as social doesn’t always have to stay the course.

Getting this unbundling right and growing both apps into sustainable, unique offerings will take significant investment, especially with apps like Yelp standing strongly in the space. This could prove to be too much, and like Netflix and Qwikster, they may ultimately decide that they’re better together. Either way, we’re curious to see how this will affect the Foursquare brand in the critical months ahead.

For now, I’ll still be checking in, but know that the day will come soon when I’ll be more inclined to check out.

Katie Conneally is a Verbal Identity Consultant at Interbrand New York.

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