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Summary:

The Pew Internet Project found that 28 percent of American adults use some form of mobile and social location-based services to get directions, recommendations or check into a location. But Pew found that only 4 percent of adults use their phones specifically for check-ins alone.

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Location-based services are becoming more commonplace tools for mobile users, but check-in services appear to be facing a tough road to adoption, according to new figures from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The organization found that 28 percent of American adults use some form of mobile and social location-based services to get directions or recommendations, or to check into a location. But Pew found that only 4 percent of adults use their phones specifically for check-in services like Foursquare and Gowalla, the same as in November.

Location-based services are particularly popular with smartphone users, which makes sense because most of the services are designed to work best on phones packed with high-end features. Among smartphone users, 12 percent have used a check-in service, 55 percent have used a location-based information service and 58 percent use at least one service from any category. That means location-based services can expect to grow as smartphone adoption picks up. But it suggests that location based services in general and check-in apps in particular are not keeping pace with overall smartphone penetration, which is a missed opportunity.

For check-in services like Foursquare, it seems like there are plenty of challenges lying in the way of growth and even continued use. A Forrester study released in July of last year found that only 4 percent of online adults had ever used a mobile location-based application such as Foursquare. It’s an indication that these services need to do a better job explaining the value of checking in. As I mentioned recently, it’s not enough to tout the game aspects of check-ins; there has to be a more substantial pay-off. Services seem to be learning that lesson and changing their offerings accordingly. Foursquare is touting recommendations, lists and event check-ins, while Gowalla is focusing more on exploring the world and Loopt is trying to be a local resource with its question and answers feature. 

People do appear to be responding positively to broader toolsets from location apps. Pew found that 23 percent of all adults have used a location-based service to get directions and recommendations. It also found that 7 percent of adults enable automatic location tagging on their posts on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, so making check-ins an afterthought of a separate primary activity might be another way to encourage more use.

Value-added location services increasingly make sense for mobile users (especially smartphone owners), but people still need to be sold on the overall value of these services. I think the key to doing this for services that started out as simple check-in vehicles is to show the link between checking in and unlocking different kinds of content and services. As Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley told me last month, it’s about teaching people to check in, and then showing them how they can do all kinds of interesting things with that data. Demonstrating that location-services bring a lot of value for people who participate is critical.

I still think that location-based services will eventually be very popular. Strategy Analytics projected that location-based services will generate $10 billion by 2016. But companies need to realize that you can’t take anything for granted in this space. There are a lot of benefits to location-based services, but also tricky privacy concerns. It’s up to location-based services to tell a compelling story that makes people believe that location-based services are natural part of our growing relationship to smartphones. Judging by some of the survey numbers, that’s a story that still needs some work.

Image courtesy of WHERE. 

  1. Ryan, the percentage among Smartphone users is 12% – while still relatively low (1 in 8), this figure is much higher than the 4% in the overall population. This percentage is also nearly double the 7% Pew found last year.

    For the following reasons, the number of individuals using check-in services will continue to grow:
    1. Growing number of smartphone users (expected to reach 50% by middle of next year)
    2. Technologies such as QR codes and NFC “automating” (and reducing the effort required to) check-in (as an example, see http://tcrn.ch/it84wc)
    3. Advertisers and merchants rewarding users for (some variation of) checking-in – see, for example, Stampt (loyalty card on your phone; http://stampt.com/)
    4. More joint promotions between check-in services and brands, like the tie-in between FourSquare and American Express (see http://bit.ly/okdUKO)

    Most important, recent empirical studies have found that check-in services boost revenues – if these results hold in subsequent studies, we can expect to see more brands and merchants encouraging and rewarding consumers for checking in, which will create a “virtuous spiral.”
    Dr. Phil Hendrix, immr and GigaOm Pro analyst

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  2. From my opinion, check in was not really the original idea on location service. It was used to patch up the deficiency of no real time location stream on the devices like the iphone. So they used check in as a mechanism to tell the application/service of where the user is at.
    Now with real time location feeding the apps, they should move on.

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  3. My opinion is that a large amount of users were not ready to understand the mechanics of LBS and this created a real challenge for developers to deliver a compelling storytelling which would make user to engage. I believe that check-in WAS the way to go.

    Today, there are many great location-based platforms working beyond check-ins and other mechanics and as the time is passing by, more people are getting to know how to use this new way of interaction.

    Another point is that games in my opinion are bringing the evolution for LBS. At Gbanga (our location-based mixed-reality game) for example, we are always trying to bring real “video gaming” into your daily life and also to converge this mechanics to business with our tailored sponsored quests.

    Let me know what you think about Gbanga and how we’re tackling the challenges.

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  4. Great writeup and I agree with your points, Ryan. I’ll add that the push should also come from local merchants who need to realize the effectiveness of location-based services as a marketing resource. I guess one needs to educate merchants along with users.

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  5. I’m taking a different approach on checking-in with my new iPhone app WHOS.IN: I want the check-in itself to be an afterthought of sharing quick, live photo snapshots of the situation you find yourself in at that moment. And if you’re with friends, they can even add their own snapshots to this check-in themselves to create a vivid group memory of your common experience.

    What comes out is a photo stream full of funny and interesting snapshots of what’s going on in your city and with your friends.

    What do you think of this approach – do you think this will take check-ins to the next level? Limited beta access via testflight is available here: http://whos.in

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