About a month ago, I wrote up a longish post on Foursquare, its problems, and my general thoughts on how it could improve. Of course two days later, Foursquare launched the new version – so I figured my thoughts were moot. However, tooling around with the new version for a few weeks and a recent piece on from ReadWriteWeb sent me scrambling through drafts folder to see what was still relevant.

Since this is going to be a critique, I feel like I should admit right off that bat that I am a Foursquare nut. I have been using the service for a long time now and I really enjoy checking in, badges, the whole nine yards. However, based on my experience and some recent conversations, I think Foursquare is in a lot of trouble and won’t move out of its core active user base unless they make some changes.

If Foursquare doesn’t embrace customer service and begin to become a credible part of the small business toolkit, they are doomed.

In many of their public statements and their product priorities, Foursquare has shown themselves a is a remarkably arrogant company that spends too much time focusing on the “cool” parts of the product at the expense of generating revenue and building real value into their product. I think while Foursquare is focusing on the social aspects (tips, photos, points), neat technical stuff (recommendations) and on high profile badges/partnerships, it should be focusing more on getting businesses to take control of their locations and on negotiating tangible benefits for users.

Are Users Checking Out?

I still am a pretty active Foursquare user, but I am getting tired of it. I only check in if I remember to or if I have a specific goal in mind (Mayorship of the Causeway St. Dunkin Donuts, you will be mine). I know several friends who were once avid users but whose rate of check-in and general interest have waned. Everyone got back into it when the new version launched, but that hype seems to have only lasted a week or two. A key problem for a lot of people I talk to (and feel myself) is that since Foursquare is getting more popular and Mayorships are harder to hold on to, what’s the point of checking in? If I am never going to be mayor at the majority of the places I go,

Seriously, why should I bother with any of this?

why should I bother checking in at all? So I can earn more points and be 14th of my friends for the week instead of 16th?

According to a recent survey of check-in services conducted by Hill Holiday, over 1/3 of respondents said that more deals & specials from businesses would increase their usage of location-based social networks. Beyond that, fully 82% of respondents say they want to see more brands offering deals/specials to loyal customers – 82%!!!!

Besides just responding to what users want, Foursquare needs to evolve in order to fight off new competition. Foursquare pioneered and is still the industry standard for social check-in experience, but that won’t provide users with enough value to keep them on the service in the face of new competitors. Several startups, like Boston’s own Scavngr, are launching strong challenges and delivering a more fun check-in experience.

Foursquare Needs to Start Caring about Small Businesses — Not just Bravo

I ran what I like think is a pretty major brand and a medium-sized business on Foursquare (The Deval Patrick Campaign). We had multiple location, earned media attention, and a history of pushing boundaries with technology. I entered the campaign excited to partner with Foursquare or at least find a way to get the Foursquare community in Massachusetts excited about the campaign.

I was able to quickly set up a venue at campaign HQ and applied to become manager. I also offered a pretty lame special, a free bumper sticker on check-in. I emailed Foursquare to ask about the possibility of a partnership or some kind of special deal, and then I waited. And waited. And waited. I didn’t hear from Foursquare for months. I didn’t get a response until August 18, 2010 (coincidentally, the day Facebook Places launched).

When I did hear from them, it was a form email approving me as manager and rejecting the deal I was offering (I had misspelled something that made the deal unclear). I never heard from them again, even after someone vandalized our venue by posting a tip saying “Vote Charlie Baker” and I filed a complaint.

I have talked to others who have had similar experiences. Creating your own badge? Costs around $15,000 or more unless it would be a high-profile media hit for Foursquare. Forget about hearing back from them if you are a small business. This is absurd and not a way for Foursquare can be sustainable or to grow.

Foursquare should look to Groupon

Foursquare needs to emulate Groupon’s investments – both of money, culture, and organizational infrastructure – into building up a sales force. Groupon’s success is based on the hundreds of members of the sales team calling local businesses and getting them to sign up for the service. Foursquare should follow suit by at least staffing up a few reps per city to help local businesses optimize their pages and deal with the kinds of issues I had. Right now, it is pretty slim pickings.

It is time to get serious about social and making Foursquare valuable

All of this sale force and client relations stuff is boring and it is expensive. You aren’t going to get the front page on Mashable or be the talk of SXSW doing it, but Foursquare isn’t a startup anymore; it’s time to become a real business, start making making and grow into something I can’t imagine not using – like Facebook or Google. Some people (probably Foursquare’s founders) will probably say that not focusing on the gaming aspects is moving away from the social core of the experience. Maybe, but if you start giving people a tangible reason to check in, something as simple as $1 off a drink, all of a sudden users start checking Foursquare to find places near them with good deals. When they are at a venue, they have a tangible reason to check-in beyond reading useless “tips” or finding out they are 23 days away from becoming Mayor. Users generate buzz at the bar as people who don’t know about Foursquare ask why they are showing their phones to the bartender. Maybe users even start telling their friends about great deals they found the night before. That sounds pretty social to me.

At least get venues to start offering deals on check-in instead of just to the Mayor. I feel like I am taking crazy pills.