The future of check-ins? It’s complicated

Geo-location check-in services such as Foursquare have been hugely popular in tech and new media circles in recent years. But will they catch on enough to make major consumer companies include them in their marketing budgets? A new market research study indicates that the answer may be no.

Check-in apps may not click with the mainstream

Fashion company Liz Claiborne Inc. (s LIZ) recently commissioned a quantitative study of shoppers to find out how their customers use mobile commerce tools. While the majority of participants were enthusiastic about using some smartphone applications such as mobile coupons and product search, they were decidedly less bullish about social location apps. Only 30 percent of those polled saying they expected to use mobile check-in services while shopping more often in the future than they do right now.

In fact, out of the seven actions researchers asked about, mobile check-ins were the least popular:

Study conducted by Group SJR for Liz Claiborne Inc.

This may not bode well for check-in startups such as Foursquare, which recently talked of future plans to charge merchants money to offer deals at their shops. Liz Claiborne’s senior corporate communications VP Jane Randel said in a statement that her company is not exactly keen to spend money on a potentially ineffective service:

“Our research made clear that direct benefits are in – from deals to relevant information and content – while the value of check-ins is in question… The bottom line is that consumers are getting smarter about using their smart phones, and don’t want to mess with apps that don’t offer real rewards. If they’re going to have to pay to play, now merchants need to be smarter than ever and make sure the benefits provided to consumers outweigh the new Foursquare costs.”

Foursquare is up for the challenge

But the study’s findings are not likely to take check-in startups completely by surprise. For its part, Foursquare has acknowledged that people aren’t just checking in for the fun of it — they want deals to follow. Foursquare has recently inked partnership agreements with coupon sites including LivingSocial and Groupon to tie check-ins more directly with discounts. Going forward, Foursquare and its peers could probably stand to better communicate to potential users that check-ins are often accompanied by perks.

It also bears mention that people don’t always know what they want before they want it. Five or so years ago, many people dismissed new social media applications such as Twitter and Facebook as completely useless and destined for failure, and both services have since gone on to become household names. Foursquare recently closed on $50 million in new funding, so there are a good deal of smart people — with big money — who believe that check-ins have a bright future ahead.