The Psychology of Event Check-Ins (And How You Can Capitalize On Them)

Smartphone technology has opened the doors to a lot of previously-undiscovered, sometimes bizarre human behaviors. “Checking in”, which is the process of announcing and recording your physical location using a smartphone app, is one of them.

When the app Foursquare first took off I checked in everywhere. I held brief and hotly contested “Mayorships” of key locations–the corner store,  my workplace–and it mattered to me. Years later, event planners are capitalizing on this behavior to facilitate networking and engagement.

Apps have been including check-in features since 2009 when Dodgeball introduced the concept, and the behavior’s popularity has exploded since then. Most notably: Foursquare/Swarm, the most popular check-in app; Yelp, the business review resource, offers check-ins for access to discounts and deals; Facebook allows location recording and sharing; and event/location guide apps (like Guidebook) allow visitors to announce their presence, join a community of nearby, like-minded folks, and access special features.

Why do people check in?

“I’ve been doing it for years out of habit, and because I like having a record of my travels,” says Danny Newman, who is a power user of location-based check-in apps like Foursquare and Swarm. When I began researching the concept of checking in, I immediately thought of Danny. He’s a busy guy–CEO of beacon technology company Roximity among other things–but he takes the time to check in everywhere he goes, without fail. (I’m always amazed.)

It’s a productive game

Checking in is so popular because it hits several of the more powerful human motivators as outlined by game theory. In Danny’s case, he’s collecting mementos of an admirably busy lifestyle, and leaving notes to remind himself and others what he liked or didn’t like about an experience. Check-in apps also use gamification rewards like badges, “Mayorships”, social sharing and more.

But he also benefits directly by increasing the chances of valuable and fun networking opportunities.

“While I check into restaurants and museums and airports to create a history and take notes for future visits,” Danny says, “I check into events for more of a real-time experience. Of course I want to let everyone know I am at a cool event, but I also want to help encourage “planned serendipity” by letting others know I’m there.”


event check ins with Guidebook app

Planned serendipity–in this case, seeing who else has checked in and determining who to interact with–means Danny’s more likely to fall into interesting conversations and sessions between sessions. (And he might score some after-party invites.)

They can get special access

Users who check into events and locations featured in Guidebook’s guides–like conferences, airports and museums–can upload photos to a shared directory (and claim ownership), participate in scavenger hunts, and swap “contact cards” while networking and mingling. They can register for specific mini-events and sessions that are likely to fill up. Without a checkin, these features aren’t accessible.

They score deals and coupons

While the thrill of being crowned the Mayor wore off for me a few years ago (plus, Foursquare did away with mayorships), I still whip out my phone and check in to the Best Fish Taco in Ensenada, a hole-in-the-wall taco joint in LA, because it gives me access to a BOGO deal.

And the same concept applies at some events: sponsors and event organizers are offering special perks to attendees who prove they were on-site.

Good old-fashioned crowd mentality

It feels good to plant a flag, and everyone else is doing it. When Foursquare launched Swarm, they focused the features on the ability to connect IRL with friends around you. Seeing a familiar face nearby triggers a positive response, and seeing a large number of people nearby–whether you know them or not–makes you feel like you’re part of something special. (It’s worth noting, by the way, that the release of Swarm has been met with some controversy. Regular Foursquare users who were happy with the feature set have complained that the new two-app system, and the removal of some features, is jarring and uncool.)

Witnessing event check-ins reminds you that you’re part of an elite group of comic fans or digital marketers or experimental physicists… whatever you’re there for, the other people are a little bit like you. And checking in allows you to contribute to that community, whether it’s by sharing photos, networking, or just appearing in the list of people who’ve said “I’m here”.

I asked our Director of R&D, Patrick McNally, if he would take a closer look at event check-ins by number of app users. There’s a very clear pattern: We saw that as the number of users increased, the percent of check-ins decreased.

event check ins behavior

My theory is that when we are part of a smaller event, we feel that we can have more of an impact by checking in: we have the ability to influence the smaller group. But when we’re at a very large event we find it less important to contribute, plant a flag, or share photos and contact cards.

In addition, smaller communities are more personal and less intimidating. You feel like you have control over who sees your information. Patrick calls it “digital stage fright”.

How to capitalize on event check-in fever

If you want to get something out of your event’s check-ins, you’ll want to first find ways to encourage them. (Perhaps this is true of leveraging any human behavior. Grow the audience, then find out how you can benefit.)

Make communities of any size feel personal and inviting

We know that people come to events to engage and network. The more ice-breaking opportunities early on, and throughout the event, the more likely you are to drive people to meet. Meeting could mean a handshake, a check-in, or a contact card swap.

Sarah Michel from Velvet Chainsaw shared ways to incorporate traditional and tech-focused means of encouraging networking. She also calls it “planned serendipity”, and the result is an ice-broken community and a warmer relationship between strangers. At any size event, this is sure to promote check-ins and other interactions.

Create more checkin-only offers and opportunities

Approach the motivation to check in from all angles. People are incentivized in different ways. Try a checkin-only offer or prize, and make sure attendees know they need to be checked in to register for special sessions.

Continue the behavior and the conversation

If you’re holding a multi-day event, send an email or a push notification reminding attendees to check in on the second day, too. Remind them of check-in only offers and the benefits of joining the community.

Interested in using a mobile app to increase attendee engagement at your next event? Try using Guidebook for check-ins, photo sharing, contact swapping and more!

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