Foursquare is trying to bring back the fun, and thereby users, with an update that has the location app returning to its gaming roots. The app is reintroducing mayorships, where the title of mayor is given to a Foursquare user who checks in to a place more often than anyone else during a 60-day period. The feature pitted users against each other to compete for the title, and in the app's early days, some businesses even gave their "mayors" special discounts.
@sally_brian Congratulations on becoming our newest foursquare mayor!
— LA Fitness (@LAFitness) April 9, 2011
— Coco Veranda (@cocoveranda) May 7, 2013
But Foursquare removed the function in 2014 when the company took a turn and split into two apps, debuting Swarm as a check-in app and the new standalone Foursquare as a Yelp-like recommendation engine. Previous fans of the app were frustrated by the change and have been confused about the purpose each app serves. (Note: Check-ins and mayorships are added to Swarm, not Foursquare.)
"What I'm interested in is, at what point are they going to recognize that the public is right and go back to what used to be normal?" Foursquare user and digital strategist Meredith Gould told NPR in July 2014 after the app split.
One reason for the removal of the feature was that becoming mayor grew much more difficult when users ballooned to 50 million. Foursquare co-founder and CEO Dennis Crowley said that these "gaming" features were something that the company wanted to move away from.
“We wanted to ditch the image of Foursquare being a toy, something that lets you play games,” Crowley told Medium’s Steven Levy in April. “If anything, I think we did not make Swarm as fun as the old Foursquare was -- we screwed up a couple things. Now we have a team of people working to dial the fun in Swarm back up to 11."
Indeed, Swarm has a two-star approval rating on Apple’s App Store while Foursquare has a four-star rating. Well, Foursquare heard the cries and Crowley is fulfilling his promise. “You asked for mayorships, so we’ll be bringing them back soon," the blog post announcing the update reads.
Additionally, Foursquare is adding 100 new stickers to Swarm. Stickers are unlocked by checking in to a certain number of places within a category.
— Swarm (@swarmapp) May 4, 2015
Foursquare has continued to evolve, now comprising the consumer-facing app and a data unit. With over 55 million registered users, Foursquare has reached 7 billion check-ins, 70 million tips and 65 million places. At Tuesday's TechCrunch Disrupt conference, Crowley referred to this lucrative data as the "Foursquare Location Cloud."
Major tech companies have struck deals with Foursquare to license its data. In March, Twitter announced a partnership with Foursquare that uses its data for tagging locations in tweets. Microsoft invested $15 million last year to use the data to power Cortana, the talk search engine on Windows phones. Foursquare’s API is used by over 85,000 developers.
"It's never been about the exit," Crowley said. "Let's just continue to build awesome products. We're finding a way to do that with a lot of our partners."
These deals prove that Foursquare’s data is valuable. Even Google’s Waze is powered by Foursquare rather than the company’s own data. But if Foursquare wants to continue to leverage its location database, it needs users to continually engage and keep the data current and relevant. In addition to user growth stagnating, Foursquare has $41 million in debt from its latest financing round. But it seems investors haven't lost faith.
“Dennis is building something for the long term,” said David Lee, a founding and managing partner at SV Angel, which invested in Foursquare's initial funding round and Series B. “I think a lot of people mistake growth for value, and I think they’re doing a great job of building value for their company. You can see that in the partnerships they've struck.”
Moves like reintroducing mayorships and building more partnerships could bring back more power users and attract new users. "How long will it take Foursquare to reach hundreds of millions of users?" Crowley said at TechCrunch. "A while. Unless we work with more companies."
That's especially true if the company hopes to live on, or be acquired. Over the past five years, analysts have debated who would or could buy Foursquare. In April 2010, Yahoo reportedly was in talks with Crowley to acquire the company for $125 million. Last month, nearly five years to the day, TechCrunch reported Yahoo had made another offer -- this time $900 million.
“I think they all want it -- Google, Facebook, Apple and Yahoo. But they want it like they want a new blender. It’s really nice, but it’s not so important to you you’re going to take it,” said Rick Webb, an investor in Foursquare’s Series B and partner at Quotidian Ventures. “Nobody’s going to convince their boss to spend a billion dollars on Foursquare.”
In April, Foursquare launched what the company expects to be its most lucrative revenue stream, a Foursquare representative said. Pinpoint is the latest ad model for brands in the network, by which brands can target users based on where they've been.
Beyond the basic check-in, Foursquare has been building on its discovery engine. At the TechCrunch conference, Crowley compared the service to the "helpful paperclip" in Microsoft Office or the voice in the movie "Her."
"But I think we have another couple years' worth of work to making [the recommendations] more relevant," Crowley said.