/// Foursquare Evokes Minority Report With Talk of Automatic Ads
Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley walked into the J.Crew store on New York’s Prince Street, armed with an experimental version of the company’s popular mobile app. The app is now smart enough to track his whereabouts, and as he entered the store, it automatically showed him a special offer that said he could save $20 if he spent at least $100 with his American Express card.
In other words, it sent him an AMEX ad because it knew he was at J.Crew. “We have all these specials on Foursquare, and we can make people more aware of them,” he told us during an interview this fall, not long after his visit to the SOHO store. “We’re really good at recommending places to people, and you can imagine some of that is paid promotions at some point.”
That’s not how the public version of the app works today. Though Foursquare recently rolled out a new version of its mobile service that closely tracks your movements and delivers suggestions regardless of whether you “check in” to the app or not, these automatic suggestions don’t include paid ads, and officially, the New York-based startup says it has “no plans at the moment to push ads through real-time notifications.” But when we spoke to Crowley, he clearly indicated that, somewhere down the road, it will.
It’s only what you’d expect. After all, this is a maturing company that’s hungry for revenue. The question is whether Foursquare can deliver these automatic ads without turning people off. It faces the eternal conundrum that plagues all ad-driven business — while trying to win people’s money, you may just get them angry — but this problem becomes particularly acute when you’re tracking people on mobile phones.
Today, the company only delivers ads if you actively check-in to the app. But Crowley has always seen check-ins as a stop-gap solution. When he first dreamed up Foursquare thirteen years ago, he envisioned something that sent you stuff unbidden, and now, thanks to a clever hack from his engineering team, that’s what he has. The new Foursquare delivers tips based not only on where you are, but also your movement patterns, the activity of your friends, and comments left by other Foursquare users.
To his credit, Crowley told us that he wants to improve the unpaid notifications before delivering ads in the same way. But it will happen. He wasn’t testing that AMEX ad just for fun.
The stakes are high. On the one hand, after $112 million in funding and scant revenue, the company needs to get both users and advertisers to engage more frequently with its app, and delivering unsolicited ads could be just the thing it needs. More than any other company, Foursquare understands how to pinpoint exactly where a user is and what type of information they might want at that very moment.
Of course, the company could also creep users out by tracking them too closely or annoy them with spammy ads — or both. Many of Foursquare’s 40 million registered users have already given the app a chance and then dropped it. If the company blows its second chance, there probably won’t be a third.
Foursquare senior brand partner Brian Williamson seemed to acknowledge this tension between convenience and creepiness during a recent talk at an event sponsored by the consultancy PSFK. He touted Foursquare’s huge data trove, including more than 4.5 billion check-ins over the years, as well as the company’s new automatic notification technology, but then came a little joke.
“With the new iOS phones, [and] with the new Android phones, we are able to measure where people are regardless of where they check-in,” Williamson said. “I’ll let you soak that in and get real scared for a second.” Yes, the audience laughed, but there comes a point where this isn’t that funny.
Williamson went on to make a comparison between the automatic ads that Foursquare could deploy and the science fiction movie Minority Report, in which Tom Cruise is greeted with personalized suggestions of a more complex nature. “You could see where this could go for retailers,” Williamson said. “The power of how they could use this — to say: ‘Hey, are you near my store? Here’s something you should check out’ — hearkens back to Minority Report, where a mannequin is physically talking to Tom Cruise as he is walking by a store. It’s getting close to that. This is like the first early step of that.”
The thing is, Minority Report showed us just how horrifying that world can be. Cruise’s character can’t walk more than a few steps through a mall without getting heckled by countless video posters.
Crowley insisted during our interview that this sort of thing won’t happen, that Foursquare wants to give you something valuable in exchange for the privilege of tracking your movements. And if the company is to succeed, it will have to. But that doesn’t mean it will. Perhaps Crowley should start by telling his brand managers to stop comparing Foursquare to some dark, dystopian vision of the future.
Wired – Ryan Tate