3 reasons check-in apps aren’t going to make it

I wrote a while back about why I was down on Foursquare.  That post was specific to Foursquare, which I still think is a great tool but my conclusion is that in its current state, I’m not cool enough to appreciate it.

But I’ve been studying the “check-in” apps for quite a while now and some things are becoming clear to me.  I should make the point that I’m talking specifically about applications where the main feature is to check-in at a location.  For instance, I’m not talking about Yelp (which added checking-in but is still focused primarily on restaurant reviews and ratings).

The 3 reasons that check-in apps aren’t going to make it:

1. Checking-in is a feature, not a product.  Startups face this dilemma constantly, striving to determine whether or not their company is a stand-alone business or if its better served being a part of another business.  We’ll see this play out when Facebook rolls out their check-in feature.  If they fail miserably only 10 million people will use it.  Foursquare only has 2 million users today.

2. They currently demand too much from their users.  As people get more and more comfortable lifestreaming – sharing their experiences with their friends via digital mediums – they become encumbered with too many applications required to share their experience.

Let’s say I go to a concert.  I need to check-in on Foursquare to let my friends know I got there.  I then take photos of the band on stage and I put them on Flickr.  All my friends get in a group shot and I quickly post that on Facebook and tag them.  I want to see what other people at the concert think about the playlist so far, and I need to search Twitter for that information.  So you see quickly I am opening up 3 or 4 apps to share this experience.  The first to go will be Foursquare as I can easily tell my friends I’m at the concert by updating my Facebook status.

3. Unlike the successful social networks, they become less useful with growth.  This to me is the most interesting phenomena and perhaps the most telling when looking at the long-term value of check-in applications.

When you first use Facebook or Twitter, before you’ve really connected to people, you have that moment of, “Ok, now what?”.  Then this amazing thing starts happening.  You start connecting with people and pretty soon you’re checking these networks throughout the day to share more stuff with your connections and see what is happening in their lives.  The more people you connect with, the better the network.

But with Foursquare, the exact opposite thing happens to most people.  You start by checking in, getting badges (which seem cool at first then you quickly start saying, “Ok, now what?”) and you’re high on the leaderboard.  But the more people you connect with the farther down the leaderboard you get.  And the more people that are on Foursquare, the harder it is to get a mayorship.  Foursquare was a lot more interesting to me when a few hundred thousand people were using it then today with almost 2 million.

So now what?

I’m in no way saying these companies don’t have a future.  But they’ll have to adapt as any successful startup has to.  Some things that I think will start happening in the space:

Checking-in to a location will morph to checking-in to an activity.  This will expand the experience dramatically, allowing people connect in new ways.  Hot Potato is one company doing this.  “I’m watching the Lost series finale” for instance.

The applications will become more useful to the end user.  Foursquare and Gowalla are starting to do a little of this by allowing deals/coupons/incentives through their platform.  But the one I like the most is WeReward which actually gives you money via paypal for checking-in or performing tasks.  I’ll open an additional app to get some cash money yo.

Some players will be snatched up and become a feature of a larger business.  We’ve seen talks in this area for a while including a supposed courtship of Foursquare by Yahoo.

Checking-in will be embedded (as a feature) in brand applications.  You go to Walmart, open up your Walmart app and check-in, unlocking coupons/deals/etc.  Similarly you attend a conference, open up the conference app and check-in to the sessions you’re attending, where you can also download the presentation, interact with people, give feedback, etc.

We’ll see where this space ends up.  Foursquare claims to want to be the 3rd major player in social networking, next to Facebook and Twitter.  At this point I just don’t see it.

Do you?