Fast Chat: Foursquare’s Dennis Crowley

Startup CEO talks about new paid ads

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Four months after Foursquare launched its paid ads product—which combines mobile, search and social elements—the company is heading into the holidays with the system still in beta. Only 20-odd major retailers and a few mom-and-pop shops are testing the platform. Given Foursquare's retailer focus, not having the feature in place for the biggest shopping of the year could be seen as a missed opportunity.

But Dennis Crowley seems patient to get it right, as the startup CEO sits in a conference room at Foursquare's impressive SoHo digs in downtown New York City. He's surrounded by dozens of employees who are iterating on upcoming merchant features and drumming up ad sales. The core of his team, though, works on user-experience functions and hopes to come up with another tool like the Explore button, which the 36-year-old entrepreneur says has boosted his firm's ability to track the consumers it drives into bricks-and-mortar stores. The Explore feature also helps his company serve geo-targeted ads based on social sentiment. Indeed, Foursquare—one of the hottest mobile apps of the last few years—isn't just about check-ins anymore.

Adweek visited Crowley last week to catch up on his company, which continues to intrigue retailers as a possible high-ROI sales converter.

Adweek: What can you tell us about the ads beta?

Dennis Crowley: We are not releasing stats specific to the ads yet. But I think it really shows something that about 20 percent of the folks who go into Explore actually end up checking into those places within 72 hours. There are not too many tools that can brag about being effective from an online experience into an offline retail location. It’s a good number not only because it’s good, but also because no one else has a number like that. We can track all the way down to people checking in to those establishments. 

When will the paid ads product move out of pilot and be open to everyone?

We don’t have an actual ship date. We are getting a handle on what users like versus what they don’t like, and what merchants like versus what they don’t like. And there are metrics we need to work on, like conversion stats.

Is it only retailers in the pilot program?

It’s mostly retailers, but there are also some hotels and car rentals. They are mostly national merchants with large footprints that can experiment across the country. We did throw some local merchants in there—some smaller franchises and mom and pop businesses to see how they use the tools as well. But it is a test that’s meant to be on a national scale before we roll it out as a self-service platform.

What would you compare your ads to?

We compare them to Promoted Tweets because it’s a ad unit and Google Adwords because they are driven by intent. In terms of the latter, people are only paying for those ads when users click on them. Foursquare is very much driven on intent—where you search for something interesting nearby.

Less than two years ago, you had 5 million users. Now, you have more than 25 million. Is that growth rate sustainable?

We’ve been adding a little bit more than a million users every month. If anything, as more features and deals get in there, it’s going to accelerate. Once people understand what this product is and how it fits into their lives and they start telling that story to their friends, that’s when growth really accelerates.

When you talk to national retailers about audience scale, are they satisfied with what Foursquare offers?

I wouldn’t say scale is an issue. But people always want to reach more folks than they are currently reaching. That’s true of any platform. It’s like, "Hey, it’d be easier to advertise in this one newspaper if everyone in the world read this one newspaper."

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.