Technology is our friend: What is a ‘check-in‘ anyway?
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July 26, 2010

What is a ‘check-in‘ anyway?

Foursquare, Gowalla, Brightkite, Friendticker – and every few days some new service comes around that lets you check-in into something. Checking in seems to be a big thing, but from a marketing and business perspective, brands and companies seem to need a lot of time until they start embracing check-in opportunities. There are brands I am following on Foursquare, but to be honest
– at least in Germany – I did not notice any activity other than offering me to follow them. And yes, I got a beer once for being mayor of a bar. And that’s it? It is time to think about what a check-in really is – and can be.

A) A standardized status update
Status updates as we know them from Facebook and Twitter consist of free text. You can attach a link or media to it, but the normal status update would be something like “I am at work” or “Need to buy coffee soon” or “My brother gets on my nerves with his heavy metal music”. Check-ins are very similar to that, but standardized. At the moment, most of them are standardized as geo-related status updates. Instead of writing “I am having a drink at Harry’s bar” you can now simply check-in to Harry’s bar and let your friends wonder what you might be doing there. Another form of a standardized status update is provided by Miso, a service that lets you check-in to TV-shows that are currently running. It is obvious that there will be lots of other forms of check-ins in the near future if you just have a look on how Miso is working.

B) A “trusted” status update
Miso brings us to the next level of check-ins: They are information that is certified by a third, neutral party. Miso should not let you check-in to a show that is not running at the moment. Foursquare should not let you check-in to a bar in New York when your real location is Berlin. We trust in these applications to provide mechanics that make sure your check-in is reliable. They remind me of that “proof of purchase”-snippet you would have on product packaging: You could write “I am having dinner at Chez Louis” on Facebook, but that is just you speaking. Checking into “Chez Louis” would add a level of trust, because it’s Gowalla or Foursquare or some other third party speaking.

C) A loyalty tool
“Standardized and trusted” means good preconditions for business usage. German “Friendticker” may have cloned Foursquare, but added an own “scent” to the service by literally providing a digital version of “proof of purchase”-snippets by collecting points and offering rewards for those. Their check-ins are designed to be counted and archived so a loyal consumer behavior – to anything – can be rewarded by those interested in that loyalty....

.... Starbucks does similar things with Foursquare. And why shouldn’t a TV station reward me for loyalty when I check-in frequently with their shows? Why shouldn’t Coke reward my loyalty if I could check-in every purchase I did in a supermarket or bar?

This brings us to another great quality of “Standardized and trusted”:

D) A statistics tool
Since check-ins are standardized and trusted, they are a great tool for statistics, for both users and providers of anything that can be checked-into (location, tv-show, bus rides, anything). A location owner for example can see how many people checked in when at his store, shop, bar, who the mayor is etc (see picture below). Users can track their behavior and use this data for multiple purposes. Me for example, I used to spend half a day at the end of each month when I prepared my tax papers to reconstruct where I have travelled to, who I invited for business lunch or dinner etc. and then tried to find all receipts I might declare as business cost. Nowadays, my Foursquare stats / history simply does that for me. In future, I will have my digital receipts in some service as well. The Foursquare Business Dashboard is a great first step towards that scenario.

E) A social search query
Additional to "standardized, trusted, easily trackable for business and personal use" there is another central quality of check-ins: They are public (if we want them to). By making them public, we do treat them like search queries. There’s this colleague I used to work with who I haven’t seen for 8 years since the guy lives in Sweden now (Hi Frederic!). Last week, I checked into the (awesome) “Bagdad Bistro” in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Luckily, this guy was just a block away, saw the check-in and dropped by. So by telling people where I am, of course they understand that I am open for meeting up – if I were on a secret date, I would probably not communicate my location.

F) A search query in general
As we will be able to check-in into anything – not only into locations – a standardized status update can become a standardized search query. Why shouldn’t I check-in to a product search like a digital camera? Both friends and businesses could provide valuable information here to help me make a better decision. Or, when I check-in to activities like a dinner in a restaurant, why shouldn’t bars that are close by offer me a special price on cocktails? If I have checked-in to a car search, why shouldn’t car dealers (of requested car brands and styles) offer test rides when I am close to their locations? And when I “Facebook-like” an article on a web site, this is not very different from checking-in to that specific site; it proves I was there and this is not me speaking, but a third party-app confirming that. So if I were to have an e-commerce platform, I would not only offer the possibility to “like” my products or offers (and communicate the offer at the same time via Facebook), but I would also treat these “likes” as check-ins, provide badges and reward loyalty – and use these information as a data source to predict consumer behavior, thus treating it like a search query.
And why shouldn’t my check-in into a real-life department store not open a pop-up on my smartphone that would allow me to “google-search” the whole building for products I am looking for, recommendations and special offers?
Check-ins are standardized, trusted, easily trackable for business and personal use and at the same time, they are public search queries. With these qualities, check-ins are still underestimated as a marketing tool. Of course, usage figures of these applications are still low (in terms of population penetration) and mostly offered on smartphones only, but it is obvious that “checking-in” is a user behavior that will quickly go beyond critical mass. I firmly believe that for nearly every marketing purpose you could create a reasonable check-in scenario. Marketing departments should start working on test cases, collect experiences and eventually include these mechanics into their consumer communication strategies.