What’s the Minimal Requirement to be Taken Seriously as a Media Company?

The story behind the story

I'm a big fan of Foursquare. I am a Level I Superuser who has contributed 291 tips and 756 photos over the course of 6,169 check-ins that earned me 147 badges. I own and love its shirts, both the English and Japanese editions. I've clearly been a fan over the years.

I guess I'm no longer their biggest fan. Well, I have had issues for quite awhile. Last November, after a reporter wrote a feature on a new ad product they put out, I wrote him, "I still can’t believe they avoid reporting active user #s. What are they afraid of?" He responded, "I’m thinking the #s must be very grim…" and later added, "I bet a lot of people would agree with you! (I agree with you!)." I told him, "Thanks for the encouragement. I’m wondering how to make it into a post that’s more than a few sentences, or if there’s anyone else that’s remotely as egregious, and thus looking at it as more of a trend piece."

Eight months later, Foursquare's just as quiet on user numbers, but it touts some grandoise claims. I don't think it's right, I don't think Foursquare the company deserves to be taken seriously by marketers until it discloses a bare minimum of verified information. When I was finally motivated to write a column, I turned to more sources than I had in ages: Foursquare directly, Ad Age reporters, comScore's Mobile Metrix, and eMarketer's media relations lead. No one had answers. For such a name brand in digital media, especially in terms of marketer awareness, it is the biggest black box that I'm aware of.

The column was recently published in Ad Age. As per usual here, the better, edited version is there, and this one had more edits than usual given the sensitivity of the topic and my own approach to writing it like a journalist even when contributing it as a columnist (to be clear, I don't receive any income from Ad Age or any other source as a journalist, and I have never made a dime from Ad Age).

I will also note that after discussing the story before it was published with a contact at Foursquare, I toned down the rhetoric considerably, well before it was submitted to Ad Age. I saved quite a number of versions of it, and the contact helped me keep a level head in terms of tempering any raw ranting and focusing this on a substantial issue that should be top of mind for media buyers and sellers alike. I have in turn heard some other people at Foursquare are none too pleased with the column, but they haven't reached out to be directly. Perhaps they'd at least appreciate that the first draft wasn't the final one.

Granted, any post that starts with "obfuscation" and ends with wondering why anyone would work with them isn't exactly a puff piece. Your thoughts on this are welcome. My final draft is below, with Ad Age's headline (since it's better than what I had).  

Foursquare, It's Time to Be Open about Metrics 

After five years of obfuscation, it’s time for Foursquare to decide it’s going to be a real media company, one worthy of marketers’ attention. The lesson for Foursquare and its peers on the sell side is simple: be open and transparent if you want to be taken seriously.

Foursquare has refused to release its metrics on monthly active users (MAUs) since it launched in 2009. I should know, as I’ve asked them repeatedly while representing two different agencies. Then, while writing this column, I had an exchange with a spokesperson from Foursquare’s communications team. I’m still no closer to an answer.

What prompted the outreach out to their press team was a message Foursquare sent to its first million users about a forthcoming update to the app, described publicly on its blog. The missive noted, “You’ve seen us grow from a tiny project to a 50,000,000-strong community.” The zeroes seems to carry a hint of self-aggrandization, and something seemed off, as did its liberal use of the word “community.” Who is really using it now?

When emailing Foursquare’s communications director about MAUs, he said, “We don't share our monthly actives or specific country-by-country breakdowns.” The geographical issue remains equally troubling for marketers – it should be one of the first questions buyers ask, along with requesting MAUs. I also brought up the 50 million figure, and Foursquare’s representative responded that more than 50 million people have downloaded their apps since Foursquare began in 2009.

I had further questions, such as whether Foursquare could confirm that 50 million referred to unique individuals as opposed to app installs. It’s hardly about semantics. I have probably installed Foursquare on ten different devices over the past five years, and at least two operating systems (iOS and Android), so does that mean I am counted once, twice, or ten times among the 50 million? Foursquare wouldn’t provide any clarity. When I followed up, the spokesperson said, “Just never felt the need to offer a deeper breakdown of our user community. One of the perks of being a private company, I suppose!” Why not add smiley face emoji, with an adorable little cartoon animal, if he’s going to be that flip?

Foursquare, the perk is over. This is a company targeting marketers, and it is holding back the most basic information that advertisers need. If a company can spend five years thinking it doesn’t need to share this, it’s deluded. Meanwhile, Foursquare won’t confirm whether it’s lifetime number refers to installs or true unique users.  Just what is Foursquare trying to hide? It should be honest with marketers, show the value of what it can be used for, and talk about the plans for growing its user base.

Marketers shouldn’t accept the status quo. In fact, marketers should be wary of conducting anything more than a pilot with a media company without that basic MAU and geographic information. This isn’t some secret project run by the Defense Department or Elon Musk; this is a company that has been courting the press and marketers for half a decade. In that time, Facebook and Twitter went public, Pinterest and Snapchat launched and garnered multi-billion-dollar valuations, and social media acquisitions have included Tumblr, WhatsApp, Instagram, and so many others. Facebook even acquired Gowalla, once billed as Foursquare’s top competitor, back in 2011.

Foursquare, meanwhile, seems to have idled. All the while, Foursquare has developed some compelling marketing offerings for local advertisers, whether small businesses or global advertisers looking to drive people to local stores. Broader campaigns for major brands, also running on Foursquare, don’t yet seem to be in its sweet spot.

Marketers, go ahead and run tests even without a lot of basic information. If a media property is brand new, great; it shouldn’t have to disclose much as long as it sets expectations. Find a partner with a relevant offering and get something in market. Even a company with a massive audience such as Snapchat can take its time releasing user data until it rolls out a well-defined offering targeting brands. If a company like WhatsApp doesn’t want to work with advertisers at all (as was its founder’s stance before joining Facebook), it doesn’t have to reveal anything at all.

Yet marketers should reward transparency and push back against obfuscation from companies that have been courting their attention, love, and money for years. If basic information isn’t forthcoming, there are alternatives. For marketers who need MAUs and other data for pilots, go on sites like AngelList, Crunchbase, Industry Index, or Partnered, and connect with more willing companies.

The free ride has to end somewhere, and a five-year anniversary seems like a great time to move on. I will try Foursquare’s app update and keep using Swarm, but Foursquare needs to finally earn my trust as someone representing marketers. If Foursquare starts treating marketers with more respect, then we can have a real dialogue. Until then, why would anyone do business with a company that considers its secrecy a perk?