The Power of Foursquare

Some things are fads and some things are merely nascent, and rare is the marketer who can tell the difference when it matters. Who among us did not pitch facebook concepts to advertisers who’d never heard of it, didn’t understand it when you explained it to them, and didn’t want to be a part of it when they did understand it. And then Aaron Sorkin writes a movie and Mark Zuckerberg tours Wall Street, and suddenly every CMO is screaming that they wanna be liked.

That’s why books like Carmine Gallo’s “The Power of Foursquare” are appealing – because they provide the kind of down-to-earth explanations and examples that you can hand to your CMO or VP of marketing and say “Look, check out the case studies. Skim the possibilities. Review the month-over-month growth.” I’m not saying this book will make him buy your ideas; I’m just saying it could help him stop looking at you like you’re speaking a rare Klingon dialect when you pitch them.

To make the case for foursquare, Gallo starts with some reasonably impressive numbers about it. That it’s currently pulling in 35,000 new users every day. That within a year of it’s launch at SXSW in 2009 it had over a million users. That by its second anniversary, it had over 10 million users, and more than 250 million check-ins. That 40% of the users are outside the U.S.

And he makes some simple observations about what the value of foursquare is, and points to some others. Early in the book he explains that it was initially created to make cities easier to explore (founders Crowley and Selvadurai wanted a simple way for them and their friends to share where the cool parties were in New York City on the weekends). And through dozens of personal examples, Gallo makes it clear that the check-ins, the tips and the comments are, really, a way to tag physical things with info that decodes and adds value to them. Show up in a town and whip out your phone and find out where the best tacos are, where the quirky landmarks are, that a famous rockstar died in your hotel room. The kinds of things that you’d never know otherwise, that you can’t see just by looking.

And that kind of information begets more exploration and curiousity. What else is there? And what do I know that I can share?

Which points to a distinctiveness of foursquare that Gallo doesn’t articulate, but certainly leads to. Namely, that it actually generates content for people to share via facebook and twitter – whether that’s the tips and comments that are driven by where they are, or by the badges and rewards they accumulate. And while Gallo makes the point again and again that a key component of foursquare is its gamification, he only understands that gamification in terms of the competition for rewards it engenders in users. The real value of the gamification, I would submit, is that it’s a strategy whose first priority is the active involvement (as opposed to mere platform engagement) of its users. Or said another way, the badges are the tail. The involvement is the dog.

Unfortunately what makes the book useful for the uninformed, is what makes it a bit of a disappointment for those already onboard. Because it’s not so much an explanation of the company, not so much the story of how founders Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai came up with the idea, developed it and launched it, as it is a cheerleader for the company they founded.

Gallo not only believes that foursquare will be the next big thing, he wants to jump-start that process. To take one example, he fills chapter 7 with pitches for his own foursquare concepts that could be used by the local retailers he and his wife frequent – and then does the same for national chains like Quiznos or NYC landmarks like the Museum of Modern Art.

This constant boosterism, combined with a disconcerting redundancy in places, and the book’s lack of narrative arc, often give “The Power of Foursquare” the unfortunate feeling of a padded magazine article – a feeling reinforced by the inclusion of the interviews with the founders at the back of the book.

Which is frustrating because these things detract from what could be a more comprehensive, compelling – and most importantly convincing – work about a company about which there are still many questions.

The Power of Foursquare by Carmine Gallo was published by McGraw-Hill on 10/14/11 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller ( find one here).

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