Check In Your Own Damned Self!

I have been trying to be a good consumer and early adopter -- really I have. With Facebook, Foursquare, and now the mobile shopping app ShopKick on my smartphone, I keep trying to remind myself, check in, check in. Remember when you go into Starbucks or Best Buy, fire up that iPhone and check in, I keep telling myself. Get with the program. But you know what, usually I just fall into those same old disobedient patterns and go in and buy my oversized coffee, peruse the hardware shelves and Blu-ray racks, and don't realize until I get home that I lapsed once again. Sorry, everyone. My bad. It is so hard to be a dutiful consumer these days.

Much of the talk in this column revolves around behavioral targeting, which tracks consumer behaviors by digital means. The flip side of this is the way digital technologies often try to get consumers to change their behaviors to accommodate the needs and wishes of marketers.  Basically, the check-in apps are reversing the polarity of traditional digital BT. They are trying to get us to track and target ourselves for the benefit of marketers. Generally, this is a bad idea.

If the digital revolution has taught us anything, it is how long-established, ingrained behaviors are tough to change, and that tech companies may not want to try. The myth of personal computing is that somehow the new machines that Apple and IBM made accessible and more affordable to us all in the early '80s changed the culture overnight. Bah! For those of us who chronicled this "revolution" from the beginning, that is a hard myth to sell. Remember when IBM and Radio Shack and Microsoft all tried to convince us year after year how much easier PCs could make balancing our checkbooks, doing homework, keeping recipes? Home PC penetration took a good decade to take off, and it involved the  slow process of a new generation of users getting accustomed to the machines in school or office settings.

In the 1990s, how many Internet start-ups crashed and burned because they presumed that when faced with the possibility of managing their calendars, banking, social lives, etc. in virtual space, people would just jump at the chance? In truth, old patterns of behavior die hard. While it is true that some technologies like mobile media or e-commerce can grab the public imagination and eventually signal a shift in the way we do things, more often than not we shape these new technologies to fit familiar patterns.

In 1997 most media companies still saw the Web as just a new publishing platform, even as users were embracing email as their principal use of the Internet. Publishers and advertisers desperately wanted the technology to serve their interests, as a media consumption platform, an extension of TV, newspapers and magazines as knew them. Generally, consumers were already demonstrating that they tended to see the Internet's closer kinship to the phone, as a one-to-one communications platform. In 1997, who but a few actually saw Facebook as the purest expression of our fundamental social instincts digitized?

This little history is good to remember as we embark on yet another round of tech innovations on the mobile platform. Location-based services are all the rage this season in mobile. Publishers and brands are scurrying to partner up with upstart startups like Foursquare or Shopkick. Both apps are grounded in shopper check-in behavior -- letting the service or your network of friends know that you are in a certain place at a certain time.

I have no doubt that these services will have a place in the next wave of location-based marketing that mobile technology makes possible. But given the hype and the hotness of the category, I was a bit surprised last month at MediaPost's Mobile Insider Summit to hear more than a little skepticism among brand marketers and retailers about the likelihood that their audiences will find them through such apps. "We don't want to try to change consumer behavior," said one e-commerce head for a major retail brand.

While there was some disagreement over whether these check-in approaches will work, a number of retailers I spoke with echoed the sentiment that mobile technologies needed to find better ways than this to slip neatly into the shopping and lifestyle behaviors people already practice. The point underscored what I had sensed and even written about in the past about the latest fad in mobile: I kind of resent being asked by an app or even by a social network I like to "check in."

Has anyone pulled apart that little phrase yet to suggest the mildly authoritarian note? Teenagers "check in" with parents. Spouses "check in" with one another. Employees "check in" with bosses so everyone knows who is doing what and where.

Do I really want to confer that kind of authority to a consumer brand or to an LBS app? Arguably, of course, you really are "checking in" with your own network of people when you activate Facebook Places or Foursquare, but I find it revealing that only a small handful of the hundreds of contacts I have on Facebook are posting their whereabouts regularly. I can't be alone in finding the "check-in" maneuver in this context unnatural, even slavish.

To be sure, companies like ShopKick and Foursquare are making their names by trying to overcome any "check-in" reluctance with a game-playing motif. You collect redeemable "points" by engaging certain activities in Shopkick and collect "achievement badges" in Foursquare. OK, but I am not sure that I like being "rewarded" for modifying my habits. Even if a coupon or discount is at the other end of the process, there is something Pavlovian about all of this. Almost makes you wonder if it is possible to get "demerits" if you misbehave.

Don't the best brand loyalty programs work best when they work in background and automatically? To get frequent flyer miles all I have to do, well, fly. Other mobile technologies are asking me to scan 2D bar codes in order to get a mobile Web page or a video.

Perhaps my own child-of-the-sixties anti-authoritarianism is showing. Maybe I just don't have a lot of consumer team spirit. After all, didn't our grandparents dutifully collect S&H Green Stamps at the grocery store each week and recruit the kids to lick and paste them into redeemable books? In retirement, my own grandparents spent their Wednesday mornings clipping coupons from multiple copies of the "coupon day" issues. I myself have vague memories of "dish" and "towel" nights at the local movie theater.  There are precedents for marketing schemes getting people to modify their habits. But how much effort does the modern consumer have to put in to get a break from a brand that should be finding ways to streamline our daily lives -- not clutter them with obeisant activities?

I am the consumer, and you, the brand, want my business. Why should I "check in" with you? And who are you to "reward" me?

Check in and reward your own damned self.  

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13 comments about "Check In Your Own Damned Self! ".
  1. Edward Hunter from Loop Analytics , September 10, 2010 at 1:36 p.m.

    Well said Steve. My opinion is that 'checking in' is still a consumer 'pull' function, so it's survivability depends on getting people to play along.

    Unfortunately, playing along is tied directly to the novelty or entertainment value and not providing a top of mind value to the consumer. You might remember to check in at Starbucks for example, because you know doing so gives you some direct value advantage during your in store experience.

    My opinion is, brands won't play in this sandbox for long.

    In my corner of the space, we feel that you must attach location and 'check in' and all of these other truly powerful location based mechanisms to a value proposition pushed by the brand to the consumer, not vice-versa.

    Somewhat of a reversal of the current trend, it's tantamount to the brand saying 'Hey are you near my brand? Tell me and theres a value in it for you..', and the consumer simply having to respond 'yup'.

    Contextually, this fits in and aligns with 'natural' consumer behaviors such as replying to text messages or emails far more closely than a 'check-in'.

    There's no real relevant consumer context for checking in save those you described in your article, and you're spot on when you challenge the brand to be the one to reach out.

    Edward Hunter, Managing Partner
    Loop Analytics, LLC
    http://www.loopanalytics.com

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , September 10, 2010 at 1:37 p.m.

    From controlling, continuing and increasing your actions for spending hundreds of dollars for overpriced coffee for more flavored colored hot water to shiney dimes handed to paupers, the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, the Murdocks, the Enrons, the "wings nuts" and religious fanatics will be happy to keep you poor, stupid and promise you forgiveness and salvation in the next imaginary life. Baa Baa Blacksheep. Have you any wool? Fools' errands. (Once your mother got her toaster from Green Stamps, her and her family were not followed and badgered ad infinitum through every step of their lives.)

  3. David Carlick from Carlick , September 10, 2010 at 2:14 p.m.

    Some people seem to love checking in, getting points, being mayor. I have given up on trying to predict the future based on what I like. Personally, checking in seems like a waste of time, but so is most of what I see on Facebook and Twitter, and that hasn't stopped their growth.

  4. Robert McEvily from MediaPost , September 10, 2010 at 2:25 p.m.

    Excellent piece, Steve - thanks!

  5. Josh Mchugh from Attention Span Media , September 10, 2010 at 2:34 p.m.

    Steve - agreed. Becoming "mayor" of a place is only compelling as long as it's in the context of a competition between friends. Foursquare check-ins are only interesting to me as a way of seeing what my pals are up to; Mayorships are interesting if a friend takes one away from me or vice versa. That's where Foursquare et al. break down in the game mechanics dep't as they grow beyond first-level social circles.

    D. Carlick - I find FB and especially Twitter to be great filters that bring me two different sets of info: 1. What's happening with people I care about (FB) and 2. Things that are interesting to the most interesting people I know or admire (or fear!).

    Edward - sounds like you're of the opinion that utility is ultimately the most compelling factor for adoption of this stuff. Can entertainment - or a blend of entertainment and utility - make it work as well? Might provide somewhat of a contextual buffer to soften the jarring experience of having brands checking in with you as you go through your day.

  6. Lubin Bisson from Qzedia Media Inc , September 10, 2010 at 2:36 p.m.

    Great post Steve.

    On a related issue however, I have to ask:

    I find it revealing that only a small handful of the hundreds of contacts I have on Facebook are posting anything-at-all regularly.

    In fact the great majority of the hundreds of contacts I have on Facebook have no activity on the site (and for months now).

    Are you seeing anything similar?

  7. Michelle Bonat from RumbaFish , September 10, 2010 at 2:38 p.m.

    Steve this is hilarious, I couldn't agree more!

  8. Edward Hunter from Loop Analytics , September 10, 2010 at 3:53 p.m.

    @Josh - Certainly entertainment and novelty can participate - especially when the value proposition behind them remains fresh and reusable.

  9. Ryan Trotman from Rogers Digital Media , September 10, 2010 at 3:57 p.m.

    This sounds exactly like the anti-Twitter articles from a year ago that questioned why users would want to share 'what they are having for lunch with the world', each media source was tripping over themselves to declare a quick death of the product whereas growth continues today.

    Years ago people questioned what audience there would be for 'postage-sized videos on a tiny computer screen' when better quality, buffer-free videos existed on their television sets.

    Many who dismiss these innovations when they are still new are generally resistant to change and tend to be followers versus leaders in the digital space -- there's lots of them here.

    I'm surprised that your article doesn't consider the fun factor of FourSquare instead of declaring it simply as vehicle for advertisers to reach consumers as there is very little of that going on right now.

    Like most products, people aren't using it to be served ads, they are using it to connect socially and add an element of interactivity to what has otherwise been a passive experience of walking through a doorway.

    Perhaps your social network doesn't fall into the early adopter category, if only a few of your contacts on Facebook are using the relatively new service, but that doesn't mean that it should immediately be dismissed or that growth in the category shouldn't fostered.

    The seconds that it takes to participate in location-based products is not so cumbersome to those that are using it and they don't require an ad to keep them engaged in doing so.

    Check back with you in a year Steve.

  10. Dave Kohl from First In Promotions , September 10, 2010 at 5:19 p.m.

    "Checking in" is one thing, but it's not the same as following or responding to a retailer or business. I, for one, continue to make a concious effort not to mix the 2. I don't "follow" business on my Facebook site so that my real life friends and family members aren't subjected to what is really outside advertising, and I hope they will do the same for me.

    You are correct, Steve, in pointing out that a lot of businesses and retailers should be making it easier for those who really do want their offerings to get them.

    Then again, I won't purchase jackets or clothing with the company's name plastered all over it, such as something Face. If they want to have their brand on my person, they should provide me with the item at no cost or at a significant discount vs. what a similar item from a competitor costs. Maybe I'm too aware of passing along advertising to others.

  11. Steve Smith from Mediapost , September 10, 2010 at 5:53 p.m.

    @Ryan, I grant that I may just be an old fart when it comes to the check-in trend. But I still think that the basic behavior is a chore with little pay off. Even Facebook and Twitter, which I think do have rewards for use, rely on such a small slice of users for content that I think even the social networks help make the point that posting or checking in is an activity that appeal to a minority at best.

    I think the mobile check-in apps are a different animal in a way because their pay off is so slight and they so clearly are building a business off of users contributing content. Whether brands are there now or not, I am not even seeing the great social or entertainment pay off here. I get why early adopters want to try them out. Although you consign me to the league of dreaded digital "followers" (how will I explain this to my Mother?) I have all of these apps precisely because I try everything and give every one of these a chance to latch onto me. These bore me and at some point usually make me feel as if I am serving them rather than they serving me.

    As I said in the piece, I think they will have some place in LBS because a slice of us (or you) like the activity.

  12. Uriah Av-ron from Oasis Public Relations , September 11, 2010 at 6 p.m.

    Great post, Steve. I totally agree with you -- it's incredibly difficult to change behavior. Marketers are going to have to offer users exchanges of value for the 'checking in' trend to continue.

    As a side not, there are those (outside of MSM) who even feel Twitter isn't going mainstream (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/a/2010/09/03/businessinsider-twitter-mainstream-2010-9.DTL)

  13. Denny Reinert from Coupons.com, Inc. , September 12, 2010 at 6:44 p.m.

    Great article Steve and I totally agree. I've wondered why I have to check in at all. Why can't I just set my favorite spots once and then when I get near, it checks me in automatically? It also solves the problem of begin able to check in to your local bar when you are in fact sitting on your couch.