Is the Mobile Check-In Dead?

Marketers weigh in on its longevity

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Mobile check-ins were red-hot when Foursquare launched in 2009, followed by Facebook Places in 2010. But by 2012, the trend had lost significant steam and is now rarely used in branding efforts. Even Foursquare’s massive redesign only a couple of months ago made it clear that check-ins are not as key as they used to be in driving the social app’s business forward.

But a new case study from Denny’s suggests that marketers might not consider the check-in obsolete—yet.

Over the years, Denny’s has tested various location-based marketing initiatives, including an elaborate campaign in 2012 that asked customers to check in at a Denny’s location in all 50 U.S. states for the chance to win a lifetime’s worth of Grand Slam breakfasts.

For its latest mobile push, Denny’s teamed up with Atari to create a mobile game that turns breakfast food into game items. To drive downloads of the game, Denny’s and media agency Optimedia ran a check-in campaign within SessionM’s network of apps. In exchange for checking into a location, consumers were served an ad prompting them to download the mobile app, enter a sweepstakes or view new additions to the menu.

Forty-two percent of consumers who checked in clicked through to download Denny’s app. And an additional 26 percent of people who checked in visited a Denny’s location that they had not visited in the past (9 percent of these users had never been to Denny’s before). Overall, check-ins to Denny’s restaurants increased 40 percent to 50 percent as a result of the campaign.

Buoyed by the results, Denny’s plans to run other check-in campaigns for upcoming campaigns. "Location data is becoming increasingly more important to the brand as mobile technology becomes more sophisticated. We can now use GPS data to not only target and segment our customers, but we can actually measure in-store visitation," said John Dillon, Denny’s vp of marketing.

Rethinking Location-Based Advertising

At the same time that Denny’s reports success with location-based advertising, Foursquare is going through a major rebranding to distance itself from check-ins.

In August, Foursquare rolled out two stand-alone apps to house its 50 million downloads, moving all check-ins for local restaurants, bars and venues to a new sister app called Swarm. Foursquare’s redesign also correlated to new ad offerings on the platform, including location-based placements that run along the bottom of the page and promoted places that serve up ads based on terms that consumers are searching for. Currently, only ads that run along the bottoms of pages are available to marketers on Swarm.

Despite the company's attempts to offer marketers better branded-ad opportunities, some experts still argue that check-ins only work for brands with physical assets. "If you don’t have a brick-and-mortar location, I just don’t see a massive appeal," said Tim Villanueva, director of media at Fetch.

For example, Fetch works with and was interested in running a campaign that would tie check-ins at touristy locations like the Statue of Liberty to an ad. The agency decided against running an ad because Foursquare’s reach and scale wasn't worth the investment, per Villanueva.

"Most of our business is built on mobile app install programs—[clients’] goals are to acquire as many users and installs for their mobile apps and to have those users either have high retention, high ROI or some other qualifying metric," Villanueva said.

"Brick-and-mortar or even the CPG brands don’t really spend consistently or see mobile as a business-critical channel—it’s a nice-to-have channel. For that reason, the check-in hasn’t been a critical tactic for most of our clients."

But competitor HotelTonight also ran an app install campaign on Foursquare this year with pleasing results, per mobile marketing manager Kevin Kwon.

Next-Generation Check-Ins

Still, it’s questionable whether or not the check-in results at Denny's can be applied to other brands with physical assets.

Brandon Rhoten, vp of digital at Wendy’s, declined to name specific location-based platforms that have proved to be successful, but did say his company doesn’t use traditional check-in campaigns because they require too much work from consumers to physically touch their smartphone. "In its original form, [the check-in] is dead," Rhoten said. "The magical computer in your pocket has a GPS chip—no need to click a button to check-in."

Instead, Wendy’s employs location-aware efforts, dubbed the "2014 version of the check-in" by Rhoten. These geo-triggered features are commonly built into mobile websites and ask consumers to opt-in to share their location the first time it is accessed. In exchange for agreeing to let the site use their location, users typically receive exclusive content. Marketers, in turn, collect location data that provides a small look at how consumers use their smartphones.

Beyond serving up ads in real-time, Wendy’s is also using location data to determine the best areas to set up stores and better understand consumer behavior while in restaurants, per Rhoten.

That type of data is why marketers shouldn’t dismiss check-ins altogether. Regardless of the platform, the insights gleaned from geo-targeted ads that are served to specific segments of consumers give marketers the kind of quantifiable results they want.

But without a clear understanding of how many active monthly users each of the platforms (especially Foursquare) have, marketers may still be hesitant to pour serious ad dollars into check-ins.

@laurenjohnson Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.