Check-in time: Foursquare or Facebook?

This year, one of the most hotly contested races didn’t include nasty ads, debate or any mudslinging. It took place totally online. Thanks to Foursquare and the exponentially-expanding Facebook, coffee shops, restaurants and our offices have become battlegrounds for a new wave of undemocratic campaigns, where a simple check-in is all that’s needed to get your name on the ballot.

The popular service Foursquare has reached 20 million users and 2 billion check-ins, transforming the simple action of sharing one’s location into a fierce competition. Fame and fortune are up for grabs (or at least a virtual crown and the title of “dude who is always hanging out at Starbucks”) in what is essentially a real-world video game.

And how does the check-in functionality on Facebook compare to Foursquare?

Originally a standalone feature called Facebook Places, the functionality has been merged up into the mother ship. Facebook check-ins allow users to broadcast their physical locations when posting on their walls. Although it doesn’t offer the same level of instant gratification as the Foursquare point system, Facebook does provide users with a larger forum to promote themselves, thanks to its user base of 955 million (according to September 2012 statistics).

Regardless of which service you prefer, both services apply basic psychology in order to motivate users to check in obsessively.

Similar to likes and retweets, check-ins are part of a reward system that triggers the release of dopamine, giving us a sense of accomplishment that is usually reserved for real-world achievements. Because humans are social creatures seeking praise and attention, the feelings of accomplishment and conquest are major motivating forces in our daily lives (as confirmed in a recent study by researchers at Harvard).

When you discover that people devote 30-40% of their speech to talking about themselves, it’s no wonder why social media is so successful. Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare provide quantifiable and observable data to users (i.e., the number of friends, likes, followers and mayorships), revealing the effectiveness of their own personal publicity campaigns.

Having thousands of Facebook friends and more badges than an eagle scout can make us feel good about ourselves which, to most, is priceless. Add to that a chemical cocktail of friendly self-promotion, competition, collecting and exploration and it’s easy to understand how location services have garnered so much use and attention.

Discovering what motivates individuals can provide powerful insight into what does and doesn’t work in terms of social media.

Behavior that is Pavlovian in some regards can cause normal individuals to crave things that are virtually worthless (like the mayorship of the conference room), and having a working knowledge of an audience’s drives and motivations can lead to a great social media strategy.

At this point, it’s too early to tell how Facebook check-ins will affect the dominance of Foursquare in the market. Foursquare has been the check-in authority since Gowalla (its major competitor and recent Facebook acquisition) officially shut down earlier this year. However, with the ever-increasing online presence of Facebook and its seemingly unending cash supply, it may not be long until the reign of Foursquare comes to an end.

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