Mar 15, 2011

SXSW: Lessons on Mobile Engagement from FourSquare’s Dennis Crowley

SXSW mashable pete cashmore foursquare dennis crowley

Mashable CEO interviews FourSquare co-founder Dennis Crowley at SXSW.

Yesterday’s keynote interview at South by Southwest featured Mashable founder and CEO Pete Cashmore interviewing Dennis Crowley, the guy who made virtual checkins cool with FourSquare.  The discussion was wide ranging, and revealed some of the unconventional thinking that has powered FourSquare’s success.

For anyone interested in how communities act or  people act in social networks, Crowley’s comments are informative.

On the sleek new FourSquare 3.0 version, which offers a new recommendation engine, leaderboard and a host of new rewards businesses can offer customers checking in:

FourSquare 3.0 recycles data, and gives it back to you as recommendations.  Crowley noted,  “If we can use check in data to suggest interesting things you might like, and then the game mechanics to encourage you to get out and do things,  that’s a one two punch.”

The core piece of data – “I was here at this time with these people,” is interesting.

At its heart, FourSquare aggregates data to solve their users’ problems, and uses game mechanics to make using FourSquare fun.   One significant development was announced today – FourSquare’s plans to unify “place” databases, called the Venue Project.

From the marketing perspective,  understanding and staying abreast of how companies like FourSquare (and Facebook, Google and the plethora of other mobile-social app providers that trade on location and interaction) are mashing up public data with location information is important, because collectively, these organizations are changing how consumers see businesses.

On the competition:

“We’re trying to build things that are smart.  We’re starting to compete against the Faccebooks and the Googles – the bigger players.  They think checkins are now cool.”

Is Facebook Places integration coming to FourSquare? Crowley noted that he’s not opposed to doing it, and then turned to the audience, (the majority of who said they were FourSquare users, and asked who wanted integration with Places.  From my vantage point, it looked like about 3 people in the room raised there hands, so I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for FourSquare to integrate with Facebook’s Places.

On Google buying FourSquare: “That’s one way we could work together.  Our APIs are another.”

On what’s next – recommendations and reminders:

Crowley is interested in aggregating the data you and your friends share on FourSquare, and enabling you to save things you see others doing that look interesting – visiting a gallery, trying a restaurant, and then adding the ability to notifiy you when you’re getting close to that venue.

“The data is out there,” he said. “It’s a matter of making it all happen. We’re getting close.”

When asked about what he’d like to see at SXSW next year, Crowley said “I would like to suck in data from Tripit and suggest the 5 things you must do based on what you and your friends did last year.”

Advice for companies trying to break out at SXSW:

“We didn’t set out to launch this company at SXSW,{ Crowley note. “When Dodgeball (an early sociadodgeball went away in January, they thought they should put life into a game, on phones. Picked SXSW arbitrarily – the power of the deadline.

The feedback they got was affirming and they went back to home and got serious.

What is the breakout technology this year? GroupMe, says Crowley. It makes SXSW more manageable. Twitter did it in 2008 and FourSquare did it in 2009.

On the business model for FourSquare:

The things FourSquare is doing with merchants is interesting. No one has ever made tools that show merchants their best customers, new customers, former customers.  There’s more to it than a free coffee for the mayor.  FourSquare is giving merchants the ability to reach out and target specific types of people with FourSquare data that can suggest which people might love the business, and target them to get them in the door.

Ads? Direct monetization? Crowley isn’t excited about that.  He’s interested in running recommendations – based on friends and data – in the background and then actively alert nearby uses to venues they may be interested in visiting, not nearby specials.

There are real lessons for brands in Crowley’s approach.   He is not interested in building an app that will make your smartphone buzz in your pocket when you walk by a coffee shop that’s offering special deals.     He believes that would be intrusive and annoying.   He proposes to deliver recommendations that are customized and relevant for each user, based upon their experiences and those of their friends, and overlaying location data to alert users to experiences they are likely to value.   Those planning mobile engagement strategies should consider -and be informed by – the approach taken by FourSquare.

Author Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s VP-social media.

Photo credit: Sarah Skerik

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