Where Will SMB Marketing Be in Five Years?

I had the pleasure of attending BIA/Kelsey‘s 2014 Leading in Local SMB Digital Marketing Conference in New Orleans a few weeks ago. This was my first SMB related BIA/Kelsey conference in five years, after going for several years. I also had the pleasure of sitting on the Thought Leaders & Decision Makers panel. My co-panelists were Annette Tonti, SVP at The Search Agency and Eric Owen, CEO at Mono Solutions. The panel was co-moderated by Michael Boland, Chief Analyst and VP Content at BIA/Kelsey, and Charles Laughlin, SVP and Managing Director at BIA/Kelsey. The panel was free-form, vibrant and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

There were a few questions posed, all positioned in a “looking five years ahead” context. What struck me most was how aligned the panelists were on our forecasts and no doubt it’ll be interesting to look back at our answers five years from now.

The video (30 min) from the panel is below and here’s Mike Boland’s blog post on the panel on the BIA/Kelsey blog. I’d love to get your thoughts, especially if you feel differently about these topics or our perspectives.

Foursquare Logo

Your Move, Foursquare

Foursquare LogoMost new apps, especially those that are hyped in the media or that scale quickly usually come with some kind of promise that’s intuitively apparent, even if it fails to truly deliver on that promise right away. The early adopters buy-in and stick around for a period of time awaiting for that promise to be fulfilled longer term. Some apps fulfill that promise, others don’t.

The first time I heard of Foursquare was in 2009 while my wife and I were on vacation in California. We were at dinner in San Francisco with friends, Ryan and Devon. Devon was telling a story about how she found someone “checking in” at a venue she wasn’t at, as if it was a horrid violation of some secret code of conduct. I didn’t understand the premise of “checking in” so asked for them to explain this new app to me. While at first I kind of rolled my eyes it wasn’t long after that I was addicted to Foursquare, attempting to catch up to other early adopters.

In those days, when Foursquare was the app du jour, I’d use it to compete with friends near and far for badges, flexing my digital muscles when I’d achieve the Far Far Away badge (a checkin to a venue north of Manhattan’s 59th street), or garnering more airport checkins than other globetrotting friends, interrupting a laugh with a friend over pints in order to check-in at the local pub to protect my hard-earned mayor status (intentionally opting, for optics, for pubs instead of clubs), or feeling like I discovered treasure when I gained access to a free appetizer and bragging about it to my wife. I loved Foursquare. It didn’t do anything for me – didn’t solve any problems, per se, but it was fun. The gamification, the perception it allowed me to create, and the promise it seemed to offer. Eventually Yelp enabled its users to check-in and soon after Facebook started allowing its billions of users to check-in. Many called both moves a theft as if Foursquare had a patent on check-ins, and as if some great sin was committed.

Now, in late 2014, Foursquare seems stuck. By all accounts it’s failed to cross the chasm into the mainstream. I find more of my mainstream friends and family (versus the insiders) checking in on Facebook and Yelp than I do on Foursquare, and even then the very idea of checking-in seems old, fatigued even.

Recently Foursquare bifurcated itself – releasing a new app called Swarm, purely for checkins, and stripping-down and boxing-in the original Foursquare app into a business discovery app. While that strategy has perplexed me and scores of others, launching (or splitting) apps with singular or narrow utilitarian value propositions is the trendy thing right now so who’s to really say Foursquare isn’t onto something here.

The reality for me is that until writing this post I haven’t opened the Foursquare app even once since installing Swarm back in the spring. Swarm is an app I use frequently, for the same narcissistic reasons as ever before. I’m not alone.

So what’s the problem here? Why does Foursquare seem like such a paradox? Why does it seem so stuck? Back in 2010 Robert Scoble said “Foursquare’s value is in two places… 1) serendipity around people, … 2) serendipity around place.” Is that still true today? In March of 2012 it seemed that Foursquare was at its inflection point, as told by TechCrunch anyway. Its now late 2014 and Foursquare seems like its just going in circles, struggling, and arguably flopping. For me though, Foursquare has never been a necessity. Part of the fun of going offline as a consumer is happenstance, serendipity, and true analog discovery. Shopping local businesses or dining out is not a new human activity and it seems like no matter how hard we try in this local and/or hyperlocal industry, digitally curated shopping and consumer recommendations based on a social graph or based on what some algorithm concludes about who I am is full of promise but today they constantly fail to deliver, and often because they’re based on a substantially incomplete dataset (for a host of reasons) and, I believe, because it’s unnatural. Yet at the same time the promise of such a powerful utility, nascent as it is, strikes me as an experience that should make sense. That’s what’s so frustrating here, is it not? It’s analogous to an infomercial pitching a clever kitchen tool. Intuitively you might say to yourself, “well now look at that, isn’t that great! How did I ever slice and dice tomatoes without that thing?” The reality, however, is much different. The product quickly wears off and sits in a drawer, for years, rarely considered. It’s a problem that doesn’t really exist. It’s a novelty. I believe that’s what it boils down to – Foursquare isn’t solving a real problem for me, it’s a novelty and I can definitely live without it. In fact I probably should. I don’t desire a homogenized, curated business discovery solution. My experiences are not enriched with Foursquare. I’d argue that they’re enriched without it.

Heading into my local neighborhood, where franchises, big corporate retailers, and small mom-and-pops co-exist is as much about taking in the sights and smells, bumping into friends, meeting new people, exchanging real currency, and trying new things and is about as authentic a local experience as it gets. Should I avoid the local indie bookstore because my Foursquare friends don’t suggest it? Should I not stop by the new crêperie because a very vocal minority panned it? Curating these experiences, or even prejudging them based on what a digital friend or algorithm says, just feels wrong. It takes the fun out of it, degrades the experience. The best stories we tell our friends and family are of the most authentic offline experiences in our lives – the bad choice we made when stopping to eat off the highway one night, or the fantastic discovery at the local hole-in-the-wall in our own neighborhoods.

Yelp does a better job informing me on where to go in a new city, and Yelp is my go-to app for such a use case even though I discount virtually all of the content of its reviews. If a restaurant has earned a 4 star rating from 65 out of 90 people, I’m on my way. Like on Amazon, if 400+ people give a gardening tool a 4+ star ratings, say no more, it’s going into my cart. But Amazon makes the mistake of now thinking I’m a gardener, because I forgot to check the “this is a gift” box during checkout. I digress.

Foursquare’s discovery solution is just not easy to use – it’s cumbersome and requires too much of an investment from me, and again, I don’t really have ‘the problem’ in the first place. In the time it takes me to open Foursquare, search for “whiskey” scroll past the Starbucks reviews that happen to include the word “bourbon,” alter the filters, expand my geography (against every fiber in my being), decrypt and tweak the “more options,” refine the categories to exclude coffee shops, I could be at the local pub enjoying my second scotch and meeting new people in the real world and embracing the wonders of living an analog life. And by the time Foursquare prompts me with a message on my iPhone display, I’ve already sat down and started sipping my coffee – it’s too late.

Again, I don’t really have “the problem” in the first place — I’m not even sure I understand or remember what the problem is anymore. And therein lies the crux of it: FourSquare’s solutions have bifurcated, its core value proposition is lost on me now, and I’m only more confused about what I’m supposed to do with this tomato dicer than ever before, and like the tomato dicer Foursquare been relegated to the drawer, FourSquare sits in on my iPhone collecting virtual dust.

I want to believe that there’s a place for the intelligent business discovery app that Foursquare is attempting to be, but I can’t help but think that ultimately these products are all solutions seeking problems. I just want Foursquare to do something already. I’ve invested five years into it now and I just want it to deliver on its promise — one of them anyway. Your move, Foursquare.

Adios 2010

Adios 2010, sayonara, salaam, lehit, au revoir, ciao. There aren’t enough ways to say goodbye to 2010. It was a tough year for America, and for much of the world. Speaking for myself, professionally, 2010 was a year I’ll never forget. Truth be told, I’ve been thinking about this blog post for some time now. I’ve fantasized about addressing the entrepreneurial challenges I faced in 2010, facing of a severely depressed economy, an increasingly crowded local search segment, a handful of souring investor relationships, among other disappointments. But I’ve changed my mind. I’m going to spare you, my reader, from my bitching and from some opportunistic ‘lessons learned’ and drop my weapon so as to not injure anyone. Instead, I’ll end this year’s blogging, this decade’s blogging, by closing the chapter on a decade and an era I’m most grateful for.

As some of you likely know, it was announced in early December that CitySquares was sold to Backyard, a west coast based startup with funding from Google CEO Eric Schmidt, celebrity entrepreneur and investor Jason Calacanis, and self described greedy, blood-sucking venture capitalist Dave McClure. It’s not the investors that make Backyard exciting, to me anyway (although it certainly has a nice ring to it), it’s the founder and CEO Steve Espinosa. I’ve known Steve for a few years now, and at 22 he’s already a very well admired veteran of the Local space and I’d bet on him any day of the week. So it’s an honor to have sold CitySquares to such a great guy with an equally great vision.

Now that CitySquares is largely behind me (I will still be involved as an advisor), I’m moving on from Local. Plainly put, 2010 kicked my ass, and CitySquares’ prospects for regaining its edge wasn’t getting any brighter as this year passed for reasons I won’t get into right now (but I will once the dust settles). As Greg Sterling penned on his site announcing the acquisition of CitySquares,

Given the noise and competition now in local Saren is not unahppy about exiting the segment for now…When CitySquares launched, for example, there was no Google Places, no Facebook Deals, no Groupon and no Foursquare (et al).

There’s a whole lot of truth in those two sentences. More truth than you know. I can proudly say that CitySquares pioneered hyper-local search. No one was doing local search at the neighborhood level until CitySquares came along – and I mean really doing it at the neighborhood level. And to this day, I will boldly state that still, no one has the mashup of hyper-local geospatial data and local business listings that CitySquares.com has. Alas, the mobile platform is the future of local search, of hyper-local search. OK, it’s not the future, it’s the now! So of the many things I can hang my hat on as I close the door on my CitySquares.com chapter, this is one of them.

Another thing I can hang my hat on are my relationships with countless people, of so many background, cultures, and talents. I’m proud to call many entrepreneurs, investors, employees, associates, vendors, partners, across the country and in many corners of the globe colleagues, acquaintances, even friends. CitySquares took me places I never imagined going, both literally and figuratively. I’m most proud of this.

So it’s with both excitement and with sadness that I say goodbye to 2010, and with open arms that I welcome 2011. I will be making an announcement about my next step within the next week or two. In short, it’s a big change for me, and a change I’m thrilled about.

Before I sign off for the year, I’d like to wish you a very healthy, happy, prosperous 2011. See you on the other side!

Au revoir

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Speaking at Marketplaces 2010

The Kelsey Group is like the ESPN of the local search and advertising world. They’re the authority. They host about four major conferences every year, attracting industry insiders from around the globe. Their next one is next week in San Diego, called MARKETPLACES 2010: THE LOCAL VERTICAL OPPORTUNITY. It’s the who’s-who and that what’s-what of local and vertical solutions and advertising. I’ve attended numerous Kelsey shows and have come to know the Kelsey staff as warm and generous professionals, and many of the conference regulars. The Kelsey Group and their conferences have been absolutely critical for CitySquares. If it wasn’t for them and their shows, I don’t think we’d be a player on this big and competitive field.

I was asked to speak at the Marketplaces show alongside Colin Pape with ShopCity and David Vazdauskas of Local Thunder. The panel will be moderated by Steve Marshall, who I always enjoy. He doesnt pull punches and he adds a certain kind of intensity to the panels. I’m looking forward to it.

I’ll be at the show from Sunday through Wednesday with my colleague and VP National Sales Todd Salerno. We have a few meetings teed up but if you’d like to catch up with one of us just email me, tweet me or send smoke signals, whatever works for ya!

If anyone wants to go, but does not yet have tickets, please get in touch with me, I have a discount code for you to save a little.

Looking forward to seeing a whole lotta people! See you there!

“You stay classy San Diego” – Ron Burgundy

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Check out CitySquares on Merchant Circle!

Today CitySquares got a voicemail from Merchant Circle.It’s not the first time either. Usually I just roll my eyes, shout something out to whoever is nearby for a laugh, and I move on. In fact, just about anything Merchant Circle does gets a similar reaction from me: roll of the eyes, wise-ass remark, laughter, move on. Always in that order too. For those of you who may not understand my response – it’s because CitySquares, my company, and Merchant Circle are direct competitors.

Today, though, I am in rare form. I think it’s all the cold and flu medicine I’m doped up on. The voicemail came through as a wav file, as they all do, and I decided to play it over the speakers in the office for everyone to hear. We all laughed. But I wasn’t done.

So I decided take full advantage of this opportunity today. They called me, for the third time, and this time I responded. I went to their site, I claimed my listing, and voila CitySquares.com now has a profile in Merchant Circle’s directory. Actually, it seems we’ve had a profile there for some time, I just had to claim it. The address they had for us was three years old and it was a little tricky figuring out how to change it, but we figured it out.

Ya know I gotta say too, I was very impressed with the process! The obnoxious, spammy phone calls aside, claiming my profile and spicing it up was actually a very painless and enjoyable experience. In fact, we really should emulate some of it. But that’s all we’ll emulate, that’s for sure.

Anyone wanna place bets on how long it takes for them to take this down?

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