Why I'm Fed Up With All the Check-In Hoopla

Perhaps I'll Check Back In When This Stuff Works

By Published on .

Kunur Patel
Kunur Patel
Thanks to the new school of mobile apps and their copycats, there are at least three separate apps that will let you check in to virtually any person, place or thing that you come across. Reading just from the list of apps Ad Age has written about, you can check in to restaurants, the people you eat with, TV shows, processed chicken at the grocery store, soda cans, books and, most recently, websites. Apparently my web surfing is so interesting you'll want to follow along.

As a self-admitted check-in cheerleader up until this point, I have to say, I've hit the wall. I've had enough.

Pretty much every other hour, a new check-in app is born or another brand jumps on the bandwagon. We've seen programs from RadioShack, Macy's, PepsiCo and a slew of retailers for Facebook Deals. Each app and brand has attempted different takes, of course, from games and scavenger hunts to discounts and loyalty programs. I'm impressed the check-in category has been able to attract such tony marketers, but I'm still lost. Aren't their test budgets a bit early for this frenzy? Won't marketers get tired and abandon the check-in once they realize there are so few people actually using this stuff (see chart, pg. 3)?

My skepticism did not go untested. I vowed to check in to everything I could this week. And I do mean everything. I started off strong: I remembered to check in at all stops on my way to date night: the office before I left, Grand Central, the bar before dinner, the restaurant. I even Instagrammed a snapshot of the Grandma's-house d├ęcor at the Russian place Mari Vanna where we had a drink. It was kinda fun.

Things got a little trickier later in the week. It's not all date night and bars with lots of tchotchkes. Other than Foursquare -- my primary tool to brag about cool places I go in New York (sad, but true) -- I usually forgot. At home, I thought about checking in to Season 3 of "Lost." I am firmly in the I-love- "Lost,"-thank-God-for-Netflix camp these days, but I fell asleep on the couch before I found my phone.

I tried to check in to my Stieg Larsson novel during the few stops my train is above ground in the morning, but it was hard enough to juggle a book, coffee and purse on the rush-hour subway. Passing a grocery store, I wanted to download Checkpoints, the check-in app for that locale, but couldn't because I haven't upgraded my iPhone to iOS 4 yet. I guess that app is fine with constraining Apple devices' audience of 100 million to only those users with the latest software.

I took a field trip to CVS to try out the new Altoids and Ben & Jerry 's programs on StickyBits, the check-in to products app. I went to the freezer case, found a pint of Cherry Garcia and scanned away. It worked on the second try but nothing happened. I continued on to check-out for the Altoids, and was met by a suspecting "Can I help you?" from the sales clerk. I told her I was just testing something.

"See?" I said, showing her my iPhone. "It's an app. It's marketing." "We don't allow customers to take pictures of merchandise," she said, not smiling. Oh. So I left after only one scan, before I could actually get it to work.

After that, it was very clear that, even in New York, the apparent testing ground for this new-fangled stuff, we're so far from a check-in to everything world. It was too foreign for even my early-ish adopter habits. With my slow 3G, I wasted time. It's hard to do everyday things like buy soap and think about being tech-forward.

I don't doubt that consumer behavior is getting there. My tweet stream, Facebook feed and the U.S. government's worry that check-ins are going to compromise war secrets are evidence enough that people are getting into the services, especially when it comes to restaurants, airports and bars. It just seems like we're taking things a little too far without enough infrastructure or everyday benefit.

I later caught up with StickyBits cofounder Seth Goldstein to tell him about my experiment. He clarified that the Ben & Jerry 's promotion was only for Fair Trade pints of ice cream. But without signs in the store, I didn't know that. He acknowledged that promotion is an important part of these still extremely new programs. The Scion car brand is seeding Stickybits codes on its traditional-media ads, for one. And to the points I made above, he reminded me that technology will catch up and check-ins will evolve and get easier and more automatic. Rather than waiting for my 3G to load an app, a list of locations and a button to click, my phone will be able to "sense" where I am, or what jar of peanut butter I'm holding in the grocery aisle. (We'll save privacy concerns for another post.)

While I might not have the patience to look up what pint of Ben & Jerry 's to scan for a chance to win a free T-shirt before I go to a store, fanatics will. My New York bar is someone else's packaged good.

"Everybody is passionate about something," he said. "There are people that are passionate about Oreos; there are other people that don't give a shit." I can buy that.

Who's Winning the Check-in Race

For the first time, get check-in figures for the top brands on Foursquare. Our chart tracks how major brand merchants are faring in the exploding Location-Based Services (LBS) space. We're producing this exclusive chart with editorial partner Trendrr, the real-time business intelligence tracking service created by New York digital agency Wiredset.

Check-ins in the week before Thanksgiving were in a lull, dipping week-over-week because, we suspect, retailers were saving up their LBS-incentivizing firepower for Black Friday (the real one, after Thanksgiving, not all the kinda, sorta pseudo pre-11/26 Black Fridays). Check adage.com/adagestat for the latest data every Monday and a special breakdown of Black Friday check-ins.

Foursquare Check-Ins chart
Source: Trendrr

Kunur Patel is a digital reporter at Ad Age.
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