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.