Checking In on TechCrunch’s Social Currency CrunchUp

On Friday I attended TechCrunch’s Social Currency CrunchUp on the Stanford University campus, followed by the swanky party on the veranda of the nearby August Capital. Though my live blogging efforts were thwarted by a bad connection on-site, there were more than a few takeaways I’ll review in retrospect.

Though the event was labeled to have a social media angle, it was much broader, covering the collision of social, local and mobile media. This is of course where we hang our hats so it was of great interest. Excitement in these areas continue and the packed room (1,000+) was proof.

Gettting Real

We continue to see some misguided thinking on the revenue opportunities for the popular companies in the geolocation space, but also a bit of realistic thinking beginning to take over. CityGrid’s Kara Nortman provided a good reality check on the SMB segment where her company has played for years.

This is the segment that’s continually proposed to be a massive revenue opportunity for newer entrants like Foursquare. Though massive, it’s a minefield of complex buying behavior, low adoption rates and high churn. Nortman reminded the audience that a combination of direct sales and networks/channels are required to scale.

Google head of Local and Maps John Hanke likewise chimed in on the challenge of getting SMBs online in the first place –one of the tech giant’s biggest ongoing initiatives.

“It’s not competition amongst Google and Yelp or anyone within this space,” he said. “It’s more about getting SMBs online at all. There are over 50 million SMBs worldwide and a very small percentage are online. We’re trying to educate SMBs why the ROI is good, and it’s far from being over.”

There is still a fair amount of ignorance on these low rates of adoption and erratic SMB behavior. An afternoon SMB panel, though interesting, was misleading in that the 5 merchants on stage were heavy adopters of Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Yelp and Foursquare.

If this panel were to be a statistically accurate sample of the SMB segment, there would have been one panelist engaged in these marketing tools, while the other four would have never heard of Foursquare. Instead it was all success stories about social media marketing (video here).

Getting There

Though I often give Foursquare a hard time for some of these reasons — and the fact that 2 million users isn’t worth the spotlight the company gets — it at least acknowledges these challenges. One example was lead investor Fred Wilson’s comments a few weeks ago that resellers will be required to reach SMBs (similar to Nortman’s above comments).

Foursquare Business Development head Tristan Walker was also on hand Friday to talk about some of these challenges and how the company hopes to evolve. It’s inability to tackle some of these challenges so far comes down to the well-known resource constraints of a small team and capital deficiencies (he alone fields 1,000 e-mails per day).

But after last month’s $20 million Series B round, it’s time for Foursquare to really prove it can step up to the market’s escalating expectations. Walker, as founder Dennis Crowly has in the past, espoused the product’s check-in use case as only a foundation — the value from which will grow out of different applications.

“We’ll evolve how we present specials nearby, and that could involve bidding on placement, dayparts or days of the week,” he said. “We can open up the floodgates, but we want to understand the use cases first.”

Proving Out

A lot of this evolution has to do with watching how users are adopting the product, and Walker provided a few good examples.

University of Wisconsin has every classroom on campus listed within Foursquare for students to check in. Whole Foods locations in New York meanwhile carry a decentralized franchise structure that has led to individual store managers that designate check-in and mayor deals, redeemable for store items.

Also in New York (Foursquare’s hometown), A “heatpocolypse” listing was created by a Foursquare user. The listing gets thousands of check-ins on hot summer days, which has begun to prompt specials for Tasti D’Lite frozen yogurt, offered upon check-ins.

Walker also cited a dive bar in the Midwest that started a “swarm badge” promotion (badge unlocked when checking into a place where there are 50+ concurrent check-ins). Carrying almost a Groupon-like strategy, deals and freebies were given away to users that unlocked the swarm badge at the bar.

“How important is the check-in? [It] enables everything,” Walker continued. “What can we do on top of that check-in is the question. What about checking into events and products? A check-in is about expressing your want or need, and doing it in a way that starts conversation.”

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