The Real Location Mayors

by Les James on January 18, 2011

in Social Media

Caribou Coffee on Gowalla

Over the holidays I stopped by my local Caribou Coffee to grab a morning pick me up. As I was standing in line the gentleman in front of me was chatting with the woman working the register. After paying for his coffee and exchanging pleasantries the woman handed him a card and said that this is from all of us here. It was pretty clear from their conversation that he was a regular but wow, dude got hooked up with a Christmas card from the staff. Somehow it got me thinking about the whole Foursquare mayor thing. I took an educated guess that this guy has probably never checked in with a location based service before. I’m also pretty sure that if I actually checked in every single time I went to that Caribou I could easily be the mayor. It was one of those moments that slaps my inner hipster around and says, “See that? Well run businesses don’t need a social network to know who their best customers are.”

A little over a year ago when Foursquare expanded to the Triangle area I jumped right on board. I joined because I was very curious about the whole location based sharing thing. That and all the cool kids were doing it. I dabbled in Foursquare here and there but didn’t take location based sharing seriously until I played with Gowalla. Gowalla hooked me because the designer side of my brain just loved the interface and user experience so much more than Foursquare. However despite great UI/UX checking into places on a consistent basis is not exactly the most convenient thing ever. I can remember many times getting evil looks from my wife as I fumbled to constantly record my location. Despite the pain I managed to stick with it for about six months before I burnt out. There came a day that I pulled my phone out, stared at it for a minute, dropped an F bomb and decided that it just wasn’t worth it anymore.

Maybe I’m just too old to appreciate location based sharing now. Had these services been around 10 years ago when I was going to the bars 5 nights a week I think they would have been much more useful. Now, when I think about checking into a spot I get the overwhelming feeling of “what’s the point” and “who cares”. I don’t get anything out of checking into a spot and the people I’m friends with on these services probably don’t care where I’m at either. I’d say 90% of the people I’m “friends” with on Gowalla/Foursquare are not real life friends so I honestly don’t care where they are going and I’m positive they don’t care about the places I go. So really, what’s the point?

But businesses will reward you for checking in right? Maybe I’m going to the wrong places but I’ve never been rewarded for checking in somewhere. Yes there are a few deals to be had for mayors but I will never be able to achieve mayor status at places that offer them. I used to go to Greek Fiesta every Friday for lunch. I’m talking every single Friday without fail. That should be enough to make me mayor right? Nope, there was a guy checking in there 3-4 times a week! Fortunately the guys at Greek Fiesta knew who I was anyway so they treated me right. This brings me back to the Caribou story. If a business is worth anything they should be able to recognize their best customers without the help of a social network.

Now I’m not saying Twitter and Facebook aren’t useful to a business because I think they are. They are a wonderful platform to engage with your customers and I appreciate any place that makes good use of them. My problem is, and always has been, with the whole mayor system. Only one person gets rewarded and really, checking in is such a pain that it’s probably not even worth the crappy discount or free order of fries.

I gave Gowalla and Foursquare a fair shake but I didn’t even get close to getting back what I put into them. If a social network can give you a return on your time investment then it’s worth using. For example the time that I have put into Twitter has paid itself off because I’ve been able to connect with talented designers from all over the globe. If the checkin rewards were more aggressive then I’d give it another try. Otherwise I just don’t see the value.

So how about you? Are you still checking into places? What do you get out of it? What do you think your friends get out of seeing your checkins? Do you think these platforms can hold peoples interest with the current state of rewards?

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Phil Buckley January 18, 2011 at 10:07 pm

I still check into places for a couple of reasons, one being that it’s my job and I really like to see how places like The Pit use the technology to their advantage. Another is I like to see what my friends are doing.

I agree with your main point that a business has to love it’s customers in person as well as online. A company that only loves you online is like a long distance relationship – eventually you’ll find someone who is willing to love you without all the extra effort.

With that said, there are people using the location based services to their advantage. There are dozens of ways to leverage the goodwill that checking in allows. Saying the entire idea is lame because not many people are doing a good job right now is like saying “nobody will ever watch video on their phone” 5 years ago.


Cole W January 18, 2011 at 10:29 pm

You argue the point that 90% of your friends aren’t on a location based service(LBS), but that’s why we often incorporate it into our twitter feed and facebook wall(however spammy it can be at times). So our non-LBS’ed friends know where we’re at. I’m a 26 year old guy, so I use a LBS often times, just to be cool and trendy, but let’s be honest I could live without it, in that aspect.
The main reason, though I do keep my Foursquare/GoWalla account around is because of the “deals” that I can get. For example, a few months ago, I decided to go out and grab a beer at a local Chilli’s and decided to check in, while I was there. To my surprise, I won a free appetizer, just by checking in. This is the main draw and appeal to location based services, for me and most people. Are the prizes relatively small, for checking in? Yes, but a small reward goes a long ways sometimes.


Lisa Jeffries January 18, 2011 at 10:34 pm

“I can remember many times getting evil looks from my wife as I fumbled to constantly record my location.” – Hah! Nick grumbles when he asks, “What are you doing”… and I honestly reply: “checking in”.

I am still using TriOut (and TriOut only, gotta support the local guys) but this is why: I check in on TriOut, they cc the twitter account of the venue (if available). It goes to my twitter feed, which is in turn posted to my facebook feed. I usually include some commentary like “best pickle chips in town”, etc. I do this because nine times out of ten, I’m supporting a local business that I like (not necessarily a client!), and this is something free I can do to provide their business a little exposure amongst my network.

My commentary usually encourages discussion, comments, etc. amongst my contacts on twitter and facebook – nothing wrong with chatting about the latest destination for yummy pickle chips!

I’ve never done it for the freebies that may come along with being the most frequent visitor, because like you, I agree that a business should know who their most loyal customers are… regardless of online check ins. One of the biggest value-adds I’ve found on behalf of my clients is being able to send a quick “Thanks for joining us, how was your visit?, hope to see you again soon!” that may not otherwise happen, all because the customer checked in and TriOut posted a tweet-based heads up for us. (Thank you TriOut, for what you guys are doing!)

PS – In the interest of full-disclosure, I’m not employed by TriOut, nor have I been compensated for this post. :-)


Lisa Jeffries January 18, 2011 at 10:39 pm

I like Cole’s mention of “Are the prizes relatively small, for checking in? Yes, but a small reward goes a long ways sometimes.” – when the gang at Sauced Pizza was offering a coupon on large pizzas for folks who checked in FourSquare, it allowed us to reward customers who were already in the establishment – instead of simply discounting by coupons, daily deals, etc. to get people the door. I think most people enjoy when there are perks for loyal customers as opposed to “first time customers only” options, etc.

Plus, from the service level perspective, it’s a great conversation starter! If someone checks in online, they are more likely to be interested in what businesses are doing on their facebook pages, twitter, etc. and if a business owner or employee can pick up on the habits of those who check in (typing on their phone at the table, while walking around the store, etc.), they can more easily strike up a conversation about their other online efforts and encourage the customer to participate in other online marketing and promotions.


Crystal Sadler January 18, 2011 at 11:04 pm

I still use Foursquare, not as much as at first. I don’t check in at very many interesting places so Foursquare friends will see I’m definitely not a hipster and kinda snooze worthy. I don’t always check to see where people are, but on occasion I have used tips left by friends. For me Foursquare is a game. Just trying to oust someone is pretty funny and it taps into a competitive nature. I’m still curious about how to get some of the badges (I’ll quit when I get the I’m on a boat and douchebag badges, ha!).

I definitely don’t get as many rewards from using Foursquare in comparison to the effort I put in to make check-ins. But recently I got a discount when I checked in at JCPenney. And the offer was open to all not just the mayor. I used it at three different registers and only one cashier, a 20-something lady, questioned it. I think that is how companies can best use it and other LBS. JCPenney has many customers and I could see how it would be more difficult in some ways for them than a local establishment to distinguish who are best customers across multiple locations. There could be a special reward for mayors and LBS could also be an additional delivery channel for a coupon that anyone can use. More check-ins at a location could also generate higher discounts.

And finally, I figure if God forbid I go missing, well maybe that will at least give the police an idea of my last location.


Les James Les James January 19, 2011 at 8:40 am

Phil: You’re right about calling this lame too early. I guess it’s the price I pay for being an early adopter. I have no doubts that a couple years from now every spot will have a deal or they just won’t be competitive.

Cole & Lisa: If someone posts their checkin to Twitter or Facebook they better add a comment to it. If I see an empty checkin you are on the fast track to being unfollowed. Checkins without comments are just as bad as “I just got done working out” posts. If they don’t add any value to my timeline I get very frustrated seeing it.

Crystal: The gaming elements can be fun, but it’s gets old very fast. Gowalla has digital items to collect and it was fun hunting for them, but then a moment hits you when you realize how much time you’ve wasted and the whole thing just feels dumb. It’s pretty much the same feeling I get after blowing an hour away on Angry Birds.

I think a big problem is that I don’t want to hunt for checkin deals anymore. If I’m deciding between two spots for dinner and one of them has a Foursquare sign on the window then it makes my decision easier. I’m not deleting my accounts or anything, but unless it’s blatantly obvious I can get something out of checking in I’m just done with it.


Jeff Tippett January 19, 2011 at 8:54 am

Les–I am with you. Can’t even remember the last time that I checked in on any service. I was the king of checking in early on. I even participated in the Beta testing of TriOut. But I’m not active any more. Many times I’ve wondered why. Perhaps it never added value. Perhaps I don’t want everyone to know where I am. Regardless, I definitely understand your point. Thanks for sharing.


Mark Knopfler January 19, 2011 at 9:59 am

I have never used LBSes but I have a long term hate/hate relationship with them because of my friends who do use them. I understand the usefulness to the “media” side of LBSes but the “social” side is lost on me. If a friend wishes to tell me what they’re doing on facebook/twitter/whatever I’m all for it, but automated geographic coordinates spamming my feeds adds nothing to the “social” aspect of social media and I fear that gets lost in the coolness factor and marketing aspects of the tools. I’m all for LBSes being self contained, but I realize the benefits to republishing these checkins to other forms of social media, however I also feel it cheapens and annoys the general populace.


Lucas Myers January 19, 2011 at 10:06 am

When it comes to checking in, I’ve gone from firehose (checking in everywhere in Foursquare, TriOut, Gowalla, and Brightkite) to trickle. I mainly use Gowalla now, mostly for all the UI goodness Les mentioned including the slick items and pins, but do use TriOut, MeetUp’s app, and even Facebook on occasion. It’s the quality of the check-in, not the quantity, that’s meaningful to me now. I’ve found checking in at local businesses and events to be an effective way to connect with people in my social circle and places I enjoy frequenting. Check-ins (mine and theirs) have been a good way to spark conversations with my friends about things to do and try in the area.

I know several of my friends have connected well with The Pit through social media, it’s not always the social media that gets you the mayoral treatment; checking in at The Pit for me has been rather unrewarding but my family did get the the mayoral treatment once without regard to social media. That said, I’ve connected with Cuban Revolution in Durham by pretty much every means of social network and in person. Though we aren’t weekly regulars, Cuban Revolution always makes my family feel at home whether or not I’ve checked in, am the Mayor, are using a coupon, have screaming crazy kids in tow, etc. They’ve gone out of their way to earn our business both in social media and in person.


Dan London January 19, 2011 at 10:18 am

Great post, Les.

” If a business is worth anything they should be able to recognize their best customers without the help of a social network.”

I hit the same StarBucks about 5-7x a week and they know me so well that they start making my drink when I pull into the parking lot. I’m also the mayor there, but that really doesn’t matter and I don’t even think they know I am. Party of the issue is that many businesses, 1: already reward frequent customers with perks such as skipping lines or free apps and 2. the business did not set-up the foursquare location or wish to participate. Why should a business offer something to users of all of these location based services? Just because somebody added their location to one of the many systems does not mean that they need to give anyone anything for using them.

On a personal note, I do check-in at some locations but less than I have in the past.


Morgan Siem January 19, 2011 at 1:26 pm

Personally, much of my use of these services has died out. However, I do still think that they can have tremendous value both for the customer and for the business. This is an older post that I wrote, but I think that a lot of it still holds true: Just to speak on behalf of these apps, here’s an example of a recent time in which I found them helpful:

I was attending a friend’s birthday party at a local restaurant/bar. I knew I’d know a lot of the ppl who’d be there, but since I was showing up alone, I didn’t want to get there before anyone I knew was there. Instead of having to text everyone I knew to find out if they were there yet, I just checked foursquare. A few of them had already “checked in” at the restaurant, so I got in my car and headed over. Handy tool, I’d say.


Rob Miracle January 19, 2011 at 1:33 pm

I’ve never gotten into location apps like Gowalla and Foursquare. Its kinda what Twitter started out being until everyone got tired of not caring where you were and turned into something useful.

All good points, but I want to point out an issue I have specifically with Gowalla. It is integrated with Facebook and if you have it setup right, when you check in on Gowalla you generate a Facebook status post. Many people see these posts as spam in their already busy Facebook news stream and Facebook allows you to hide applications so you don’t see everyone’s Mafia Wars entries…. Except you can try to hide Gowalla and Facebook says you did, but your next refresh and they are right back.

Gowalla claims its a Facebook problem and out of their hands and of course Facebook doesn’t care. And while I’m not to the point of blocking Gowalla posters full feeds, others have started doing that or marking it as spam. So if you are a friend and you want to continue to use Gowalla please turn off its sending to Facebook.


Chelsea Junget January 19, 2011 at 1:48 pm

I do check in on Foursquare from time to time, mostly for the novelty factor. If there is a special at the location, it’s often out of my reach (i.e. free appetizer after 10 checkins). Rarely am I going to the same place that many times AND remembering to check in each time.

I don’t have many friends on Foursquare so I am likely missing out on the social factor there, admittedly. Will I be checking in in six months? Not sure — time will tell. But there will likely need to be more in it for me to do so.


Michael Hubbard Michael Hubbard January 20, 2011 at 11:52 am

Great post Les… I believe out of the comments placed – that I am the only one who has NEVER checked in anywhere. I see the benefits to business – and I actually preach these benefits to our clients – but I for one, do not want people knowing where I am 24/7. What’s actually amazing to me is the ongoing debate in the internet advertising industry over ad tracking and privacy concerns – yet programs like these seem to still be thriving! To me that shows that maybe the advertising industry is up in arms over nothing, and if they just let people decide they want to be tracked – they just might.


Les James Les James January 20, 2011 at 12:09 pm


I never had a problem with letting people know where I am. I’m not cool enough to have stalkers so it was never a concern. I have also seen concern in the news over privacy and ad tracking. I actually wouldn’t mind targeted ads. It would be nice to see ads that are relevant to me and what I like. Once people get past the fear of knowing their spending habits are out there in a database somewhere it could actually make internet advertising not so annoying. If someone can figure out how to give me control over the data about me that is out there then I’m cool with it.


David Dekker Dave Dekker January 26, 2011 at 10:22 am

Well, I will be the second person to comment that has not checked in using any of these services, mostly due to the crappy phones I’ve owned. That will change in a few months. I suppose I will go in with the attitude of “I’m adding a little extra support/value to the business that I like. Maybe every once in a blue moon I will get some tangible freebie out of it”. What location based services out there supposedly have the best rewards and is there a listing of businesses that actively participate in rewarding people that check in or do you just get bombarded with the specials/giveaways when you join Four Square or Gowalla?

Les, I am with you on a point you made in your last comment about getting more control over your data that is collected by advertisers. Tie all of my data to an email of my choice like Gravatar does for avatars and give me 100% control to edit the data in one place.


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