Despite Expanded AmEx Deal, Foursquare Is Still A Revenue-Free Zone

Foursquare is expanding its relationship with American Express to provide local deals to people who sync their cards to their Foursquare accounts. AmEx did a trial at SXSW, and that went well enough that it is rolling out the deals more broadly.

The discounts, such as $20 off a $50 purchase at Sports Authority, are automatically applied to your AmEx account when you check in via Foursquare to a participating merchant before a purchase. Everyone in local commerce is trying to figure out how to close the loop between deals and payments. Google thinks NFC chips in Android phones will be the answer in the form of a Google Wallet. Whereas Groupon is trying out instant mobile deals with Groupon Now. By tying its specials to a credit card, Foursquare is closing the payment loop with something everyone already carries around in their wallets.

Once companies can tie mobile ads or deals to payments, they will be able to measure directly the sales generated by these mobile promotions. And one day that could potentially be a huge new business. But for now, it’s making absolutely zilch for Foursquare, which remains a revenue-free zone. As the New York Times reports:

Foursquare will not be receiving any revenue from the American Express deal

Foursquare wants to make sure it gets the product experience right for both merchants and users before turning on revenue, but it can’t wait too long, especially if it wants to justify that billion-dollar valuation in its next round of funding. The race is on to create as many great local deals as possible to present to mobile consumers. And its biggest competitor is Groupon Now.

While Groupon is already the largest daily deal company in the world, it wants to move from deals people sign up for in advance through massive email marketing campaigns to instant deals they find on their mobile phones. The company is testing its own mobile app called Groupon Now in a few cities like Chicago and New York. Groupon Now deals are different than regular Groupon deals in that consumers don’t have to wait a day to redeem them. They are available instantly and you can find them on your mobile phone when you are nearby a merchant offering one of these deals.

A Groupon Now deal is directly equivalent to a Foursquare special powered by AmEx in that it is instantly redeemable and the payment can be linked to the offer. Closing this loop is the Holy Grail of digital local commerce. But closing that loop is not enough.

The winner of this race will be the one who can bring enough high-quality deals to mobile consumers, and vice versa. You need both incredible deal density and a huge number of users looking for those deals and redeeming them, all pretty much in realtime. Even Groupon doesn’t have enough deals in place yet or people using its app to make Groupon Now compelling. Neither does Foursquare, which up until now has allowed merchants to put up whatever specials they want.

Foursquare simply doesn’t have the salesforce to craft the same kind of deals that Groupon can. Groupon’s deals tend to be more alluring with deeper discounts. AmEx is helping Foursquare here by sourcing many of these deals itself through its own salesforce and existing relationships with local and national merchants, but it also gets to keep all the revenue. At least for now.

Foursquare is bringing the users (and some of the deals), and is betting that eventually that will be worth something. It’s all about who can create a market of users and deals faster. Foursquare’s approach is to build up its users first—now it’s got 10 million—and then hope the deals trickle up organically or through partnerships. Groupon is almost taking the opposite approach, trying to build up an inventory of great mobile deals first and then hoping that the consumers will come. The thing is that it takes both sides to make a market.

Photo credit: Dan Moyle