SMWNYC 2011 – Keynote Interview with Dennis Crowley

The mid-afternoon session of Social Media Week New York at the Business, Media & Communications content hub at JWT opened with an interview with Dennis Crowley, CEO of Foursquare, by Austin Carr of Fast Company.  The hub was holding a capacity crowd for the interview, as they were eager to see what Crowley had to say.

While Foursquare has enjoyed a lot of success, Carr noted, it’s still a young company. It still must be concerned with growth and scale. People check into Foursquare for a variety of reasons. Users may use it as a diary of where they’ve been, use it to find friends, or use to to discover tips about venues. As Crowley explained, it’s like they threw ten things at the wall to see what would stick, and they all stuck. Rather than telling people how to use Foursquare, they want the users to tell the developers how they use it.

The Foursquare office is filled with white boards of lists of projects, including several that they’re looking to complete before SXSW. Projects may focus on new users, on super-users, and for brands; the trickiest part for the company is how to determine which ones they should work on first.

There’s a piece of paper hanging behind Crowley’s desk describing the use cases that they want to achieve (which, oddly enough, all focus around ramen.) While the cases vary, they tend to center around recommending venues for users who find themselves in a new place based on their past experiences.

Can you use game mechanics to encourage people to live richer lives? Crowley finds himself not leaving the East Village for weeks at a time, so how can he encourage him and his friends to visit a hot new venue in Brooklyn? Specials came about from venues who wanted to reward loyal customers.

Crowley believes that there is something unique about Foursquare that speaks to big brands. Users’ endorsements of venues in the form of check ins are like miniature ad impressions for a brand or venue. An advantage for media companies is creating a portable “best of” list for users. Rather than dog-earring a page in a magazine and hoping that you remember to check out a recommended restaurant, Foursquare could be used to remind users when they approach the restaurant.

As Foursquare grows, a challenge for them is to remain focused. Crowley feels that it’s his role to keep the team on track. The company displays its ideal use cases and credo in the office to remind them which direction their new features should follow. The creation of a new product isn’t the challenge for Foursquare; the tricky part is developing the organization and growing it in order to keep up with the development. Delegation is something that Crowley has had to learn on the fly, but it’s been made easier by hiring the right people. They’ve been able to bring on passionate people who have their own side projects in the same space. Their passion and expertise create a sense of trust that makes working together very easy.

While Foursquare is not looking to adopt activities like checking into television shows, they are starting to embrace event check-ins as part of their strategy. When they added a badge for checking into the 2010 elections, it was intended to get people to brag about checking into their polling places. The recent Super Bowl check-ins were less about watching a program than it was what fun things could be gleamed from Super Bowl parties (photos of dips, house party stories, etc.) Checking into events has been user-driven (e.g., Snowpocalypse) and will be expanding as Foursquare grows. Ideally, it’s about recording memories about people’s experiences in the offline world.

One of the biggest surprises to come out of Foursquare, according to Crowley, was the success of the API. The passion of developers has created a variety of mash-ups ranging from mobile device apps to dating apps to one that warns you about poor health grades at restaurants to which you check in. As the ability to craft recommendations grows, interest in using the Foursquare API has grown with it. To this end, the Foursquare team is doubling down again to make their API even friendlier for developers.

What are your “ideal” use cases for Foursquare? What would you want to see on their office whiteboards?

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