Quo Vadis Horreum Terrae?

A couple of days after my last geocaching post Groundspeak announced an "introduce a friend" scheme. What a coincident. Basically a virtual badge will be added to your profile, if you're going caching with a muggle friend. I think nobody is under delusion that this will change the general trend but it seems to be more of a test. Groundspeak must be aware of the current downwards trend which begs the question: How did we get here?

First let's have a look at other outdoor activities before we jump to any conclusions. Maybe outdoorsy things are going down in general and this is just how things are these days?

Nope. That's not it. Everyone else is doing fine and hiking seems to be great. We do like that :) If you translate the search terms into German, the picture remains similar. Looking at the simple word "outdoor" the whole thing gets summed up quite nicely:

Do you see Christmas time in there every year? Keep in mind this is only a graph grabbed from Google and it also includes searches for things like outdoor furniture. Anyway: My point is that the outdoor industry is doing fairly well but geocaching is not. Why? WHHhhhhYYYYYyyyYY?

What do others think?

In my journey through the web I stumbled upon various opinion pieces which try to explain why the game is on a downhill slope. I don't think there is a single reason however a lot of the guys have a fair point so here are some of them:
  • Community Cohesion
    Cachemania points out that "there are no geocaching leagues.  We don’t start out in peewee and progress up to Triple A." Players don't learn the little things in a club like environment which leads to decrease in cache and log quality.
  • Cache Saturation
    This one is a an interesting theory: Caches density reached a critical point which means there's nothing more to do since you already found the caches around home. While this might be true for a couple of high-find players, it's not the case for 99% of all players.
  • Powertrails
    In 2010 Groundspeak opened the flood gates and removed a passage in the guidelines which prevented these. The original wording was the following:

    "On the same note, don't go cache crazy and hide a cache every 600 feet just because you can. If you want to create a series of caches (sometimes called a "Power Trail"), the reviewer may require you to create a multi-cache, if the waypoints are close together."

    This was an effective way to keep these in line. Once again the assumption is that powertrials lead to a quantity over quality behaviour - more numbers > less experience.
  • The App
    Introducing a phone app provided the growth spur of 2008. A lot of players entered the game and a lot has been said about it. However I think one specific aspect needs to be highlighted. There is a significant number of app users who don't realise this is a game played and supported by other players. They don't know there's a website and a whole lot more to it.
  • Lack of Innovation
    "There rarely seems to be any new exploration. It's all to common to find myself showing up at the exact same spot in a park I've visited many times or partaking in the same activity at the same venue. [...] it's all too easy or required to drive from parking lot to parking lot. Finding a nice walk to a cache takes a special effort. The challenges [are] just [not] worth it, not only has the difficulty increased but the rewards have decreased. Social activity is the biggest hold out, but even that has diminished to a great extent."
    You will find the whole text on Steve's blog
 - Dilbert by Scott Adams

While all of the points have their merit ... more or less ... they are only focused on people already playing. Since I want to explain the decline of an outdoor activity which goes against the trend of general outdoor activities, I have to look at a very important group of people: The ones who never really started playing.

Where is everybody?

We already established recreational outdoor activities are doing well and people venture out to have an adventure. Why is everybody going hiking, climbing, mountain biking or everything whatever but geocaching? Occasionally I talk to people ... yes weird I know - interesting concept for an engineer! Right. So I talk to them, explain geocaching and sometimes I get the "Yes I know what that is and tried it."

This is where it really gets interesting: I just found one of those registry-corpses in the Groundspeak database in real life. In my opinion there is a pattern why this is happening:
  • You hear/read about geocaching
  • Download the app
  • Go on a hunt close to home
  • Have an average experience because
    • It's a mint tin in the park because that's what's close to most homes
    • You can't find the cache because you lack experience
    • It's all too much at once: guidelines, etiquette, creed, ...
  • Think it's a quirky hobby but not for you
And that is how I believe the whole thing is happening on a daily basis. It's one of the key issues of the decline. Keep in mind this is anecdotal. Groundspeak started to address some of these things e.g. trimming down complexity of the website however it still is a fairly complex game and not comparable to e.g. the simplicity of the website you're currently on. 

A photo posted by Geocaching (@geocaching) on 

There's also an unexpected plot-twist: Especially outdoorsy people don't pick-up geocaching. Yes, Groundspeak is pretty good at showing you all these mountaineers at exotic places on social media. In reality those people already have a hobby and in their view don't need to add another one. For example there are stunning caches in the High Country and there are plenty of hikers out and about but the caches just don't get the finds.

That's a nice customer potential to tap into, isn't it?

So far I covered the trend of geocaching (down) as well as scratched on the surface why this is happening. Now the obvious question is what needs to happen to change the trend? What do you think?



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