Check-in services still struggling to win over consumers

Location-based services are becoming more commonplace tools for mobile users, but check-in services appear to be facing a tough road to adoption, according to new figures from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The organization found that 28 percent of American adults use some form of mobile and social location-based services to get directions or recommendations, or to check into a location. But Pew found that only 4 percent of adults use their phones specifically for check-in services like Foursquare and Gowalla, the same as in November.

Location-based services are particularly popular with smartphone users, which makes sense because most of the services are designed to work best on phones packed with high-end features. Among smartphone users, 12 percent have used a check-in service, 55 percent have used a location-based information service and 58 percent use at least one service from any category. That means location-based services can expect to grow as smartphone adoption picks up. But it suggests that location based services in general and check-in apps in particular are not keeping pace with overall smartphone penetration, which is a missed opportunity.

For check-in services like Foursquare, it seems like there are plenty of challenges lying in the way of growth and even continued use. A Forrester study released in July of last year found that only 4 percent of online adults had ever used a mobile location-based application such as Foursquare. It’s an indication that these services need to do a better job explaining the value of checking in. As I mentioned recently, it’s not enough to tout the game aspects of check-ins; there has to be a more substantial pay-off. Services seem to be learning that lesson and changing their offerings accordingly. Foursquare is touting recommendations, lists and event check-ins, while Gowalla is focusing more on exploring the world and Loopt is trying to be a local resource with its question and answers feature. 

People do appear to be responding positively to broader toolsets from location apps. Pew found that 23 percent of all adults have used a location-based service to get directions and recommendations. It also found that 7 percent of adults enable automatic location tagging on their posts on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn (s lnkd), so making check-ins an afterthought of a separate primary activity might be another way to encourage more use.

Value-added location services increasingly make sense for mobile users (especially smartphone owners), but people still need to be sold on the overall value of these services. I think the key to doing this for services that started out as simple check-in vehicles is to show the link between checking in and unlocking different kinds of content and services. As Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley told me last month, it’s about teaching people to check in, and then showing them how they can do all kinds of interesting things with that data. Demonstrating that location-services bring a lot of value for people who participate is critical.

I still think that location-based services will eventually be very popular. Strategy Analytics projected that location-based services will generate $10 billion by 2016. But companies need to realize that you can’t take anything for granted in this space. There are a lot of benefits to location-based services, but also tricky privacy concerns. It’s up to location-based services to tell a compelling story that makes people believe that location-based services are natural part of our growing relationship to smartphones. Judging by some of the survey numbers, that’s a story that still needs some work.

Image courtesy of WHERE.