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After five years of obfuscation, it's time for Foursquare to decide if it's going to be a real media company, one worthy of marketers' attention. The lesson for Foursquare and its peers on the sell side is simple: Be open and transparent if you want to be taken seriously.
Foursquare has refused to release its metrics on monthly active users (MAUs) since it launched in 2009. I should know, as I've asked them repeatedly while representing two different agencies. Then I had an exchange with Foursquare, which I told I was considering writing this column. I'm still no closer to an answer.
What prompted all this was a message Foursquare sent to its first million users about a forthcoming update to the app, described publicly on its blog. The missive noted, "You've seen us grow from a tiny project to a 50,000,000-strong community." The zeroes seems to carry a hint of self-aggrandization, and something seemed off, as did its liberal use of the word "community." Who is really using it now?
In an email exchange about MAUs, Foursquare said it doesn't share those, or specific country-by-country breakdowns. The geographical issue remains equally troubling for marketers -- it should be one of the first questions buyers ask, along with requesting MAUs. I also brought up the 50 million figure, and Foursquare said more than 50 million people have downloaded their apps since Foursquare began in 2009.
I had further questions, such as whether Foursquare could confirm that 50 million referred to unique individuals as opposed to app installs. It's hardly about semantics. I have probably installed Foursquare on 10 different devices over the past five years, and at least two operating systems (iOS and Android), so does that mean I am counted once, twice or ten times among the 50 million?
Foursquare, the perk of being a private company -- being able to keep certain info to yourself -- only works until you are targeting marketers, and it is holding back the most basic information that advertisers need. If a company can spend five years thinking it doesn't need to share this, it's deluded. Meanwhile, Foursquare won't confirm whether its lifetime number refers to installs or true unique users. Just what is Foursquare trying to hide? It should be transparent with marketers, show the value of what it can be used for, and talk about the plans for growing its user base.
Marketers shouldn't accept the status quo. In fact, marketers should be wary of conducting anything more than a pilot with a media company without that basic MAU and geographic information. This isn't some secret project run by the Defense Department or Elon Musk; this is a company that has been courting the press and marketers for half a decade. In that time, Facebook and Twitter went public, Pinterest and Snapchat launched and garnered multi-billion-dollar valuations, and social media acquisitions have included Tumblr, WhatsApp, Instagram, and so many others. Facebook even acquired Gowalla, once billed as Foursquare's top competitor, back in 2011.
Foursquare, meanwhile, seems to have idled. All the while, Foursquare has developed some compelling marketing offerings for local advertisers, whether small businesses or global advertisers looking to drive people to local stores. Broader campaigns for major brands, also running on Foursquare, don't yet seem to be in its sweet spot.
Marketers, go ahead and run tests even without a lot of basic information. If a media property is brand new, great; it shouldn't have to disclose much as long as it sets expectations. Find a partner with a relevant offering and get something in the market. Even a company with a massive audience such as Snapchat can take its time releasing user data until it rolls out a well-defined offering targeting brands. If a company like WhatsApp doesn't want to work with advertisers at all (as was its founder's stance before joining Facebook), it doesn't have to reveal anything at all.
Yet marketers should reward transparency and push back against obfuscation from companies that have been courting their attention, love, and money for years. If basic information isn't forthcoming, there are alternatives. For marketers who need MAUs and other data for pilots, go on sites like AngelList, Crunchbase, Industry Index, or Partnered, and connect with more willing companies.
The free ride has to end somewhere, and a five-year anniversary seems like a great time to move on. I will try Foursquare's app update and keep using Swarm, but Foursquare needs to finally earn my trust as someone representing marketers.