In the past four months, The New York Times, AskMen.com and The Wall Street Journal have all partnered with Foursquare, a mobile Web service that allows users to “check-in” when they visit various local business, instantly alerting friends of their whereabouts while earning points.
The service has skyrocketed from fewer than 100,000 users last fall to about 1 million. But Foursquare fans use the app primarily to share where they are and where they are going—and less so to consume or share content. But that’s not stopping a slew of publishers from jumping on board.
The New York Times, which tested Foursquare during the Winter Olympics, recently began posting New York-related content. Other recent Foursquare partners include Time Out New York, Lucky and Bon Appetite. And last week, rival Gowalla inked deals with National Geographic and The Washington Post to publish travel-related content.
It was The Wall Street Journal that turned heads a few weeks ago when it advised Foursquare users about the attempted bombing in Times Square—leading many to wonder whether news belongs on the app.
“Our goal is to get the right content to the right people at the right time,” said Alan Murray, deputy managing editor and executive editor, online, for the Journal, which now has 5,000 Foursquare followers. While social media sites drive less than 5 percent of WSJ.com’s traffic, Murray said they are the fastest growing source. “Social networks are great for content recommendation and content distribution. It remains to be seen if Foursquare goes there.”
Beyond breaking news, the company is also using Foursquare to post about five items per day from its new Greater New York section, and may also expand to other cities.
Tristan Walker, Foursquare’s head of business development, said that he was leaving it to publishers to help guide users in how they use the product, though he doubted that the app would become the latest news hub. “We are all about short form,” he said. “For us, this provides users with another way to interact with brands that they have an affinity for. And [for example], if I’m The New York Times, I want people to know that I’ve got this great travel content.”
Indeed, travel information, like restaurant and hotel reviews, is a natural for Foursquare. “It’s so applicable to everything we do,” said Michael Martin, senior Web editor at Time Out New York. “I think this will be a major place where people will consume actionable content.”
However, Jim Spanfeller, president and CEO of the Spanfeller Group, said he sees an opportunity to go beyond actionable content to hyper local news. “Think not just sports,” he said, “but high school sports in Fairfield, Connecticut.”
At least for now, most publishers said they are not looking at Foursquare as a major revenue or traffic driver. “This is about editorial, not business,” said Murray.
“All this stuff always starts off with driving engagement and fan interest,” added Anthony Soohoo, svp/gm, CBS Interactive. “Then you think about advertising.”
Ryan Johnson, AskMen’s director of marketing and business development, said he could envision creating Foursquare contests sponsored by marketers, such as a Scotch brand inviting consumers to visit specific bars to earn points. But primarily, AskMen’s goal with Foursquare “is about getting our content in front of a good audience,” he said.
But will users’ habits actually shift to consuming content on such utility-focused platforms? Soohoo wondered whether the fact that most people use Foursquare and the like on small-screened mobile devices would be a deterrent, whereas “With Facebook and Twitter, when it comes to content sharing, you know most people are in front of a PC.”
Yet others are open to the idea. “When they set out to build Twitter and Facebook, I honestly don’t think they set out to build social news engines. It just happened that way,” said Gowalla CEO Josh Williams. “I could see the same sort of pattern emerging here.”