The Challenges of Foursquare's Amex Deal

This past weekend Foursquare announced a deal with Amex, which was first reported in the Wall Street Journal. The partnership essentially offers discounts and rewards for checking in at participating local businesses:

Under the arrangement, AmEx customers can register their cards in the Foursquare system to get access to special offers from merchants who are also Foursquare participants. Customers who shop at those merchants with an AmEx card will receive credits and electronic notification that they have redeemed the offer. Merchants who participate in the program would potentially see more sales. . . .

The Foursquare partnership is AmEx's latest offering aimed at people who are roughly a generation younger than the company's traditional customer. AmEx has introduced several new cards targeted at the hip and tech-savvy generation in recent years, with mixed success. 

The move is positioned in the article as a way for Amex to associate itself with a "hip" new mobile app and thereby attract younger users. It's going to be initially tested at the SXSW conference coming up next week in Austin, Texas: "Sixty local merchants will honor the 'spend $5, save $5' promotion."

It's great PR and a great high-profile deal for Foursquare, which now has more than 8 million users globally. Amex claims, however, this isn't simply about younger users but about new forms of loyalty and cardmember engagement.

On paper it all makes sense; however there are some potential challenges with the deal. I couldn't find empirical data but my understanding is that on average Amex cardholders are generally older than the bulk of Foursquare users, although there will be some overlap. According to Pew, here's the demographic breakdown of "location based services" users:

Demographics of location-based service users

This "generic" LBS user profile cuts more broadly than Foursquare specifically. And Google's Ad Planner (as well as Quantcast and Alexa) shows a user base that is somewhat older than Pew's profile. It also shows more female users on Foursquare.

Beyond the "demographic" challenge, is the fact that most local businesses don't use Foursquare to promote themselves. In addition many don't take Amex; you remember the Visa ads. ("They won't take no for an answer, and they won't take American Express.")

In our recent SMB survey about 8% of respondents said they were using Foursquare to promote themselves. This number cannot be generalized to the entire population of SMBs. That would effectively mean about 2 million SMBs actively on Foursquare marketing themselves. The 8% figure is larger than in previous surveys, reflecting Foursquare's growth and increased visibility. However the number of businesses using it to acquire new customers or as a loyalty platform is relatively small.

Accordingly you have to find SMBs or national-local entities that are on Foursquare (and take Amex), together with Foursquare users who have Amex cards to use in those establishments. This slices the potential pie pretty thinly. Yet this is the right direction for Foursquare, which will have enormous difficulty monetizing via SMB self-service. It needs to make big deals with channel partners and do national-local deals with retailers to generate meaningful revenue.