Tom Webster, writing and speaking

A Consumer Behaviorist Looks At The Death Of Facebook Places

Added on by Tom Webster.

Facebook recently decided to kill off "Places," its entry into the location-based apps and services game. There are a few schools of thought regarding what this means for Foursquare, specifically, but also for the "check-in," period. Certainly, there is a simplistic point of view that sees this as good for Foursquare - the giant competitor they feared has exited the space, leaving Foursquare with a far less crowded playing field to contend with. The other side of this argument holds that it is actually a coup for Facebook, in that they have managed to do away with the check-in altogether, in favor of less obtrusive means of adding location data to status updates. I am not an expert in location-based apps and services. I do think there are lots of other things Facebook could have done with Places, however (for ideas, see the new book from Aaron Strout, SchneiderMike and B.J. Emerson, "Location-Based Marketing For Dummies.") So I'm not going to speculate about the future of Foursquare, Facebook OR the check-in. I do note, however, as someone who makes his living studying consumer behavior, that saying the check-in is dead presupposes that it ever really had a chance to live in the first place. While some small subset of Twitter users may have had their time in the sun with location-based check-ins, the concept was never really explained well enough to mainstream users to have ever really had a chance.

The best thing that could have happened for the check-in would have been for Facebook to have been successful with Places - and to have crafted a value proposition that the average user could understand and get behind - which would have, in essence, created the mainstream proposition for check-in behavior. Instead, we had very little in the way of explanation, few explainable "benefits," and, of course, privacy kerfuffles.

In other words, the fate of the check-in was squarely in Facebook's hands, and either through omission or commission they allowed it to founder. Having the megaphone of Facebook clearly explaining the value of a check-in would have trained mainstream Americans to engage in the behavior, which would have been good for Foursquare, not bad. Now Foursquare needs to articulate that value all by themselves if they hope to cross the chasm and crack the larger market they could potentially reach.

In that sense, Foursquare was Betamax, and Facebook VHS. Two competing "standards" for check-ins, with valid argument on both sides for which standard was best. Sure, Betamax lost in the end. But what that battle did do was establish the value of videotape for home recording and viewing. In the case of the check-in, Facebook's VHS has exited the game, but before either side could teach us that we wanted, or needed to tape things.

So, conventional wisdom now holds that the check-in is dead. Maybe so. There does seem to be a lot of that "conventional wisdom," however, for a class of service that really didn't ever have a proper value proposition for 95% of the population. Pundits (and yes, I suppose I am one, too) will say that "people don't want to check-in." I don't believe this, and never have. It's all a question of how the check-in is framed. Every time you go to the grocery store, and use your MVP/VIP/Loyal Shopper card at the checkout, that's EXACTLY what you are doing - you are telling the store, its parent company and anyone else who accesses that data WHO you are, WHERE you are, and that you buy diapers, beer, chocolate and condoms together (big night!) So I don't buy that the average American wouldn't check-in.

Maybe Facebook just didn't try hard enough.