With Swarm App, Foursquare About Much More Than Checking In

Last week, Foursquare released a new mobile app and initiated what could prove to be a major strategy shift for the company. CIO.com's Al Sacco highlights three things Foursquare users should know about the changes.

Last week location-based social network Foursquare released a new mobile app and broke its service into two components. The new "Swarm" app for iOS and Android (a Windows Phone version is expected later this summer) is for check-ins and friend-finding, while the evolved foursquare app will no longer features check-in functionality and focuses instead on local search.

Foursquare Swarm check-in screens
Swarm friend timeline screens

After spending the past few days kicking the tires on the Swarm app, it is clear that Swarm represents a major change for Foursquare -- one that could drastically alter the way people use the service and could alienate the loyal users who helped the company build its vast location database.

Here are three things you should know about Swarm and the associated changes to Foursquare, as well as some thoughts on what they mean to Foursquare users and the company. (Note: I reached out to Foursquare for comments on a number of points made in this article, but I haven't received a response. I'll update this post accordingly if I do.)

1) Swarm for Check-Ins, Foursquare for Local Search

When I first installed Swarm and opened the separate Foursquare app, I was prompted to check out a "preview" of the new local search feature. When I accepted, the check-in functionality was stripped out of my Foursquare app. It's unclear how exactly the apps will work together when the official Foursquare local-search app is released "later this summer," but the preview provides a good idea of how the apps could coexist.

[Related: Location Etiquette Tips: 6 Foursquare "Faux Pas" to Avoid]

Though both apps can mostly be used independently, the two services are still heavily integrated. For example, if I use Swarm to search for nearby venues to check into, but I want to find additional location information for a venue or read tips left by other Foursquare users, I can click the View in Foursquare button on the Swarm venue page to open the Foursquare app. On the flip side, if I use Foursquare to search for nearby coffee shops and I then want to check into one, I can hit the Check In Here button, and the Swarm app will open a check-in page for that venue.

The integration between the apps is relatively simple, and there are Back buttons on the first screens when you jump between apps, so you can quickly return to the previous app. But the switching back and forth already feels repetitive, and I've only been using it for a few days. (Foursquare is not the only major app maker to recently split it offerings into dedicated apps; in April, Facebook pulled its chat app out of its full social-networking app.)

Why break the app in two? The potential audience for an effective local-search app based on reliable information from real people is a hell of a lot bigger than a social-media app designed to let your connections know where you are. Frankly, the vast majority of people usually do not want their friends, or anyone else, to know where they are.

In past versions of Foursquare, checking in was the central feature; the first thing you saw when you opened up Foursquare was a check-in button. Even though it featured a local-search option called "Explore," that initial check-in screen could be seen as a major turnoff for folks who don't want to share location information.

Foursquare location search Explore features
A preview of Foursquare's new local-search app

It makes perfect sense for Foursquare to divide itself in two at this point. There's a lot of value in its location database, and that kind of information has real mass appeal.

2) Gamification Changes: Badges, Points, Mayorships and Stickers

I'm a sucker for Foursquare badges. I've spent a lot of time and effort researching Foursquare badges, tracking down the right venues to unlock them and checking in all over of the United States in search of them. I currently have 138 Foursquare badges. (I know, I know, I'm a nerd. But if you're still reading this, you probably are, too.)

In addition to badges, Foursquare users received points for every check-in, with the number of points depending a handful factors, such as the uniqueness of a check-in or if they are the "Mayor" of an establishment. Foursquare Mayorships were awarded based on the number of times users checked in to the same venue during a set time period. If you checked into your local watering hole more times in the past two months than anybody else, you got the Mayorship.

In Swarm, all of this changes. Points are gone completely. I'm OK with that, as I stopped looking at points years ago.

Mayorships aren't going away, but they're morphing into something different. In Swarm, venues will have multiple Mayors, and they'll be awarded to Foursquare users who check in more than any of their friends. In other words, Mayorships will be specific to groups of connected friends. I also welcome this change, because a lot of people on Foursquare cheat. For example, some users check-in to tons of nearby venues without actually visiting them. It's also awfully hard to earn the Mayorship at your favorite restaurant when the bartender, who is there five nights a week, is also a Foursquare user. This change could breathe new life into the Foursquare mayor system.

Then there are badges. It's unclear how exactly the badge system will work in Swarm, but it is going to change. Badges you earned in the past aren't going anywhere, according to Foursquare; they'll live on the online "trophy case."

Foursquare didn't release specifics on the new badges but says it "built the spiritual successor to badges." This, at least, suggests the company realizes the relevance of badges to loyal users -- though we'll have to wait until "later this summer" to see how the new badges will work.

[Related: Location Etiquette Tips: 6 Foursquare "Faux Pas" to Avoid]

Finally, there are new "stickers" that can be tied to individual check-ins. For example, you can add a coffee mug icon to your check-ins at Starbucks or a running shoe to your check-in at the gym. I'm not sold on stickers just yet, but apparently you can unlock all kinds of new ones by checking to a variety of venue types, so I'll reserve judgment on the stickers for now.

3) Neighborhood Sharing and Plans

Along with the gamification changes, Swarm adds two new features: Neighborhood Sharing and Plans.

Neighborhood Sharing lets nearby friends know when you enter an area near them, and vice versa, to inspire you to make new plans or get together when you might not have otherwise. You can easily turn Neighborhood Sharing on and off by sliding a tab at the top of the app's home screen back and forth.

Foursquare Swarm Plans screens
Swarm 'Plans' screens

The new Plans feature lets you broadcast a message to all of you nearby friends to, say, let them know you'll be at a bar or restaurant after work. You can also receive notifications when your friends send out new plans, so you don't miss an opportunity to get together. The idea is to help coordinate new plans, as the name suggests; combined with Neighborhood Sharing, Swarm is a new way to find friends in the area and quickly communicate to arrange an event.

In the past, Foursquare was very valuable when I travelled to conferences and events, because most of my Foursquare connections are colleagues who also attended these conferences. The app let me quickly find those friends -- and in some cases, avoid them -- and these two new Swarm features could make the service a valuable coordination tool. The features would be more valuable, however, if there was a way to send targeted messages to, say, sets of friends or only coworkers.

Overall, these new features will add value to service, but Neighborhood Sharing could drain significant battery life if left on, and it's useless if you have to keep turning it off to save power.

For Foursquare, Change is Good

One look at the Apple App Store reviews for Swarm plainly shows that many Foursquare users are not happy with the changes. "Don't like having to use two apps to check into one place." "Foursquare was my go-to app to check-in. Now it's not as entertaining." "I've been a Foursquare user for years, and I just can't figure out why they are insisting on splitting the app in two." Etc.

I had similar feelings when I first downloaded Swarm -- but after careful thought, this move really does make sense for Foursquare. Some changes will rub loyal users the wrong way, as demonstrated by the App Store reviews. Swarm is also brand new, so the company will presumably polish some of the rough edges as it matures.

Like it or not, Foursquare is changing. That's a good thing. Foursquare has kind of stagnated during the past couple of years; it doesnt do much that it could not two years ago, with the exception of some location-aware features.

If Foursquare wants to grow its user base, and its business, it needs to grow its service accordingly. That means not only adding new features to engage current users, but also expanding it user base. The very nature of Foursquare -- sharing potentially sensitive location details -- turns off many people. By separating what is inarguably a valuable local-search database from the check-in features, Foursquare makes its service more appealing to the folks who simply don't want another social network but would welcome a better local search app.

One App Store review caught my eye because it suggested Foursquare would just become another Yelp-like search option. What sets Foursquare apart is the quality of information in its vast location database, with more than 60 million venues, and its simple but effective rating system.

Of course, such a significant change in Foursquare's focus could drastically change the kind of users it attracts. It should be recognized, too, that Foursquare's database is what it is at least in part due to the contributions of its users -- and its Super Users, who work (for free) to maintain accuracy.

It might take a while for loyal Foursquare users to get used to the two apps. Some folks might miss the features that are being removed -- but those will, of course, be replaced with new features, including Neighborhood Sharing, Plans and a search function that lets you search and easily browser your entire check-in history.

These changes take some of the fun out of Foursquare, but they also make it a service that could appeal to a much wider user base. Based on what I see in the current version of Swarm and the Foursquare preview, I'm optimistic about the social network's future.

AS

[Related: Location Etiquette Tips: 6 Foursquare "Faux Pas" to Avoid]

Al Sacco covers Mobile and Wireless for CIO.com. Follow Al on Twitter @ASacco. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.

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