Back before Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare or Pinterest, I was shopping at a little boutique in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois.
As I explored the store for the first time, the lady working behind the cash register said hello & made small talk. I mentioned to her that I was looking for a gift for a friend who was under the weather; in serious need of cheering up. "Something sweet and upbeat, like the soundtrack you have playing," I said. She said she would check to see what she was playing and disappeared to the back only to emerge with a handful of "get well and raise hell" gifts that were ultimately perfect for my sick friend. I completed the purchase and left delighted. Surprised and delighted.
But not as surprised nor as delighted as when a week later, a CD showed up in my mail box. The message was simple, "Said I would, then didn't. Sorry about that! Share with your friend. Enjoy!"
Talk about engagement. Surprise. Delight. Emotional connection. Building experiences, not just ringing the cash register. Wow.
That was 15 years ago. Today, people no longer get to experience the wonder of it all. No more anxiety with waiting to find an answer; no more anticipation of a guess or exhilaration of figuring it out yourself. In some cases, shrinking the wait time is wonderful. Have a sick kid? WebMD. Need anything else? Amazon. But in other ways, removing the act of anticipation is devastating. Kids are looking less at story books and more at more screen time. Museum memberships are down and libraries are all but extinct. Why, even walking lanes need to be labeled for mobile phone users who don't have the time to stop and smell the roses.
People don't seem to have time to investigate real life as much as they used to. People don't seem to want to be as connected to other people as they used to because it's too darn easy to connect virtually. We click and request a friend, post a random rant, purchase a product, ping someone somewhere or text to enter and then we move on. We publish, like, share or pin, but do we really care? If we don't have an answer, we don't need to wonder.
Nope. We simply Google it and move on.
Dennis Crowley has been working to exploit that.
Crowley is the founder of Dodgeball and FourSquare, and now Swarm. Dodgeball was sold to Google in 2005 and FourSquare was estimated at somewhere around $1b valuation a while back. Then more recently, FourSquare introduced it's new little check-in app, Swarm, in an attempt to further gain on hitting critical mass. Critics called it a wrong move, but they can't deny it's solid business strategy. In a Mashable article titled, "Why Killing the Check-In Was the Wrong Move for FourSquare," author Karissa Bell talked to a consumer technologist at Gartner, Brian Blau, who said this new technology is already a crowded space and that it's going to be an uphill battle for success. I would argue that the want for a business to connect to a customer has ALWAYS been a crowded space and it should always be part of the battle. It's not a characteristic of an app company; it's a characteristic of a human.
It's true, though, that FourSquare-like technology hasn't enjoyed the same popularity as other social networks. Try as it might, FourSquare hasn't seen the same general usage as Facebook and Twitter. And it's not because the app doesn't work. The whole theory behind optimizing toward serendipity is a REALLY GOOD THING in a world full of predictive behaviors and always-on techno-addicts. In my opinion, FourSquare is not competing with Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, Pinterest, etc. Serendipitous marketing competes with far more important things than other social media networks or marketing messages from other retailers. Serendipitous experiences compete with life; the very details that make us so incredibly busy in the first place.
We are so busy, in fact, that it's challenging to find time to schedule a little surprise and delight. (That's why Pinterest is so lovely, btw.) There is hardly time to enjoy something as simple as running into a friend you haven't seen in a long time or giving (or getting) a surprise gift out of the blue. Talking to a store clerk or asking a human a question before making a buying decision? Hell no, people don't want that, do they? Technology doesn't allow for that kind of spontaneity and thus, people stop aching for it. When it happens, it's almost creepy.
Crowley wants to change that and for that, I applaud him. And others are copying him, so he must be onto something. If you've been tracking what his companies have been able to accomplish over the last 5 years or so, you've been impressed but not blown away by the level of innovation that's occurred. And I think that's okay. Predictive personalized technology can only be so innovative before it loses it's real utility; it's ability to make money. Because let's face it; at the end of the day, it's all about adding value. Incremental value. Snippets of value that when tied together make for a warm quilt of happiness to lay over our weary souls at the close of a day or the start of a new adventure.
It's not about reinventing how a good life is lived; it's about making your own little life a little bit sweeter.
For more flavor on Crowley, watch his recent Inc. interview.