The much-anticipated Facebook Places, which copied Foursquare‘s check in feature and was supposed to crush all the other location-based social networks out there, has been underwhelming. Foursquare is not only still growing like a weed, but Facebook Places is actually helping those services grow by spreading them on the Facebook platform and popularizing the check-in concept with consumers.
The standard line is that Facebook Places isn’t meant to kill Foursquare at all, and that Facebook wants to federate the various location-based social networks instead of competing with them directly.
That’s a load of crap.
Location is the next wave of social networking and Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, knows it. Facebook Places competes directly with Foursquare and the other upstarts: if people check-in on Facebook, local merchants will manage their store pages on Facebook and offer promotions through Facebook. They’ll have no time for Foursquare and the rest. Conversely, if people check in on Foursquare, the users, the venue owners and the local advertising dollars will flow to Foursquare. What’s worse, it increasingly looks like Foursquare’s social graph is going to be more valuable than Facebook’s: the kind of people you feel comfortable pushing your location to are your real friends, much more so than the vague acquaintances and long-lost high school buddies we’ve all reluctantly accepted as friends.
Facebook could go head to head with Foursquare and copy the rest of its features, like game mechanics, badges and mayorships, but Zuckerberg is smart enough to know he can’t do that, because fighting a smaller, nimbler startup on their own turf doesn’t work — he’s been there.
Fortunately, we’ve got the solution. There’s another location-based checkin game app out there, called SCVNGR. SCVNGR is much more explicitly based around gaming than Foursquare, and works around the concept of “challenges,” like do X check-ins there to win Y points, which may or may not be tied to a real reward. SCVNGR can push challenges to their users based on deals, but venue owners can create their own challenges and users can create challenges for each other.
This is much more flexible than the “mayor” paradigm because while only one person can be the mayor of a given venue, several people can complete the same challenge like, say, check-in twice a week at that place for a month. It promises to be more engaging for users — we’ve all been frustrated to go to a place we like but where there’s no chance in hell to become the mayor — and for marketers — who can tailor deals and promotions more precisely. (SCVNGR already raised a bunch of money from, among others, Google Ventures, so we doubt Facebook could afford to buy them, which would be even better.) (Edit: Foursquare Founder Dennis Crowley emailed us to point out that around 70% of deals on Foursquare are not mayor deals. We’re not sure this is the perception of consumers, however.)
Importantly for Facebook, this “challenges” model dovetails perfectly with what Facebook Places is trying to do. Rather than try to invent their own kinds of badges to out-Foursquare Foursquare, they can let users and marketers create their own challenges. Facebook could promote the points that the challenges would earn by tying them with Facebook Credits, their virtual currency. You could “tag” people on challenges as a way to dare them to complete a challenge, and that would be posted to their Wall.
Right now, the thing that Foursquare has and that Facebook Places sorely lacks is, for want of a better term, pizazz. Excitement. We have a hard time believing Facebook can deliver that in-house. But by copying one more feature, maybe they let their users create it.