By Simon Dell, director of TwoCents Group, a young marketing, advertising and branding company based in Brisbane. He speaks and writes frequently on social media and marketing and has a background in liquor retail marketing.

*Photo credit: Agent-X Comics

With the launch of Facebook Check-In Deals in Australia in the last month, and with Foursquare already delivering this mechanism, there will soon be a rush for retailers to embrace the ability for their clients to check-in at their location and reward them appropriately – single visit deals, multiple deals, group deals and even charity deals will all be available. This digital advancement surely puts the final nail in the coffin of crappy business-size loyalty cards that clogged up our wallets while also allowing more creativity in rewarding our customers.

But there’s one question that I frequently face with clients and friends alike, who have no understanding of the concept of ‘checking-in’ or do understand it, but simply can’t grasp its benefits. And that question is why do people want to keep telling us where they are?

I suspect a number of people reading this have asked the same thing. Why is so-and-so checking in at the airport? Why does the guy I play football with keep checking in at the football club? Why does my wife/girlfriend keep checking in at the supermarket?

The first factor to understand is that it’s in the human psyche to relate our movements. Examples of this are littered through history. The first thing any human has done when discovering a new world- from Columbus to Armstrong – is to plant a flag. These grandiose acts are mirrored by the average person’s actions – symbolic gestures to indicate where we are, or where we’ve been. Whether we’re looking at cave paintings, sophisticated hieroglyphics or the rudimentary ‘SD 4 CF’ carved into a park bench, human nature is to mark our territory with our own communication.

Call it a pre-internet Meme, but ‘I Woz Ere’ was used by US soldiers during WWII to indicate to the next company an area they has passed through, often with the ‘I’ substituted with the name ‘Kilroy’. Rumored to be born in 1937 and based on a shipyard worker called James J Kilroy who frequently chalked ‘Kilroy was here’ on rivets he had checked, the trend was still alive with UK artist Banksy in 2010. Variations appear everywhere; remember the ‘Brooks Was Here’ as the suicide note in the Shawshank Redemption? Even the poet Lord Byron carved his name into the Temple of Poseidon, in Attica, Greece.

Sometimes we go even further than that: the Voyager satellite contained information about who we are and where we live, in case the little green men found it. This is Earth, all seven billion of us, trying to check-in on the universal Facebook.

Frequently people label our social media interactions as pointless. But then have you ever read hieroglyphics? Probably not, but trust me, despite their graphical beauty and complexity, most of them are not that interesting. I’m sure the first cavemen who finished their initial work of art had their own detractors – other cavemen standing behind them claiming ‘that looks nothing like a bison’ or ‘what’s the point of drawing that all over the wall?’

It continued through modern ages. People who founded towns or built houses often named them after themselves. The point? Well, there wasn’t any really but having a house with your name on it surely serves an element of self-satisfaction? And hundreds of years later people will still know you were there; I live in Brisbane, founded on the instructions of New South Wales governor, Thomas Brisbane.

We’ve all sat there with friends, neighbors or family as they whip through their holiday photos relating every story of their vacation with a photo of someone sat by a pool, cocktail in hand. That’s their method of explaining where they’ve been. The Japanese have perfected the art of this – standing in front of anything in the slightest bit meaningful and taking a photo of themselves, fingers up in a v-sign. Somewhere on the cloud are thousands of images of our Asian cousins smiling, in front of non-descript fountains.

So we get that this insistence on pointing out where we are, or have been, is ingrained in most humans, whether we like it or not, and takes differing forms depending on our location and objectives. Checking-In via social media tools simply placates that need through our smartphone and an immediate digital medium.

But to understand the reasons, we have to look a little deeper. Unsurprisingly, these reasons, or the ‘need behind the need’, vary from user to user. However, there are two core sets of behaviours that are easily recognizable to everyone.

A significant proportion of users check-in simply out of a sense of self-importance. It lets us believe that we are the centre of the universe, and this drives many to check-in at the most benign places in the hope of producing or provoking a reaction. We all have friends like this, who take this action to the extreme, and frequently this behaviour is echoed in real-life.  We may even do this ourselves sometimes – a guilty pleasure to believe that we’re VIP enough that someone is waiting to see where we are and comment on it.

But there are also a large number of users who are checking-in by the way of a tacit recommendation or support for the business. A friend of mine check’s in at her coffee shop every morning and afternoon, without fail. Is she desperate for the attention? Definitely not. But she is such a huge fan of that coffee shop that both her check-ins and the coffee shop have become the stuff of legend. People text her now to check she’s okay if she doesn’t check-in.

By checking-in to your favourite business, it’s an act that says: ‘I shop here, and I recommend it to my friends.’ And it’s this tacit recommendation that business needs to tap into.

The math is simple. If the average Facebook user has 130 friends, having 10 people check-in to your business in one day, could see that check-in viewed by 1,300 people. How about 250 people a week checking-in to your business? 32,500 people could see that and subconsciously accept the recommendation. I frequently check into my local Chinese restaurant and once received a comment last month: ‘you’re there so often, it must be good food.’ I acknowledged that it was and a new potential customer for the restaurant was born – without any action or even knowledge on their part.

Couple those numbers with a study by the Nielsen Group back in 2009 that found that amongst all forms of advertising, above anything else, 90% of people trusted a recommendation from a friend, and you have a powerful argument for why we should stop ignoring the check-in.

Of course, the reverse can be true: some people check-in to businesses to complain. But a social media complaint should be dealt with exactly the same way as a normal complaint – address the issue and offer a solution. And with social media you have the ability to keep the complaint and resolution public, demonstrating to your clients that yes you may be fallible, but that you’re happy to acknowledge this and will strive harder to address your customer service.

So history has shown us that it’s part of our human nature to create a pattern of acknowledging our whereabouts, and that this isn’t going to change, irrespective of whether it’s NASA, a famous explorer or simply the ex-work colleague you haven’t seen for years. Outside of the self-absorbed, the act of checking-in is often a subtle suggestion that our followers, fans and friends should consider looking at the business or location we’re marking. Businesses can take steps to encourage that with or even without rewarding their customers, and if they do, will find themselves rewarded too.

  • This is a great article. Its good to see marketing agency people who have real and up to date insights rather than just insulting our intelligence with things like “what is social media”! Well done Simon.

  • astrgy

    Im so glad you wrote this! Social media is such a great communication tool for so many reasons & businesses really are missing out if they are not utilizing it to its full potential!

    Excellent article! Keep them coming please!

  • Great piece Simon – had never thought of it from that point of view. I wonder if there’s less graffiti on tables at schools now that kids have an alternative way to mark their territory?

  • Very impressive piece, Simon. Kilroy as metaphor for a Foursquare check-in is spot on, and it clearly explains the human, and perhaps even evolutionary impulse to mark territory. Of course, turning that impulse into dollars is a different story. It seems the geo-location coupon game is stuttering a little.