Tod Maffin noted recently that the ubiquity of Starbucks, with the chain’s next-to-worthless Foursquare offer, poses a serious challenge to the app’s usefulness. He calls it “location spam”:

I live in Vancouver. There are more Starbucks in this city than stop lights. One intersection even has two Starbucks! That means that pretty much any time you use Foursquare in Vancouver, you’re going to get an offer from Starbucks.

Problem is, the Starbucks offer is lousy. It’s only for the person who has checked in the most — and even then, it’s a cheap offer: $1 off a limited number of their cold beverages.

I’ve stopped touching the “Special Nearby” banner because I know it’s just going to be a Starbucks promotion I can’t take advantage of.

For Foursquare, the situation would seem to be straightforward: the more special offers, the better. And at first that’s true.

But if the company keeps accepting deals like the Starbucks Frappuccino promotion – low-value offers available only to a tiny number of people – then that “Special Nearby” link will mean little more to users than “Come read some ads”.

How can Foursquare avoid this? One way would be to raise the bar for partnerships, so they’re available to more people or offer a greater value (to be a genuine incentive to trying to become the mayor of a venue).

But maybe that puts Foursquare in an awkward position when they’re trying to land a big fish like Starbucks. So here’s an idea:

  • A “Don’t show me this offer again” button on every offer.
  • If the offer is for a chain, an additional option: “Just for this location” or “For all branches”.
  • And if testing shows users will sit still for it, a final bit of interaction: let people indicate whether the offer was inadequate, for a product they wouldn’t buy, or “other”.

That puts more power in the hands of Foursquare’s users, and offers potentially valuable feedback to both Foursquare and its partners. It helps declutter the offer stream (interesting that the moment I type the phrase “offer stream”, my back goes up) and gives Foursquare the data they require to tell a partner to raise their game or get dropped.