Apps and programs targeting check-ins and rewards are growing in popularity in this mobile age. One of the latest entrants in the field is Belly. The Chicago-based company is a universal loyalty program that offers customized rewards to customers and client analytics for businesses. Customers scan their smartphones or rewards cards at iPad-enabled registers to earn points at participating businesses. Those points convert into rewards.

With backing from Lightbank, the investment company supporting Groupon and Sprout Social, Belly has been adding lots of clients this year — with a big push to go national. In fact, it just received $10 million in series B funding from Andreessen Horowitz.

It might not be as established as Foursquare or Facebook, but Belly seems to have the potential to compete with any of those other platforms. What sets Belly apart from its rivals? Is it worth using, both for businesses and for customers? Take a look at the following pros and cons to help you decide if Belly is right for you.

Pros for Businesses

The biggest benefit of Belly from a business standpoint is its access to detailed analytics and personalization. You’ll get a clearer picture of who your top customers are, compared to the anonymity of a typical rewards card customer. Since members sign up with an email address, Belly can also help companies to provide better email marketing initiatives and better opportunities for customer engagement.

Another major component of the program is the ability to make your rewards fit your brand’s vibe. You can set the perks given to frequent customers, as well as how many points they are worth. These rewards can be as zany as you want. For example, for 2,500 points at Phoebe’s Cupcakes, you can throw a cupcake at the owner. And for just 350 points, Rocks Lakeview gives you a guest spot tending bar, a free shirt, along with free drinks for you and 10 friends!

Cons for Businesses

The main drawback of using Belly instead of focusing on other check-in networks or traditional loyalty cards is the cost. Foursquare or Facebook check-in programs are free, but you’d be missing the same level of personalization offered by Belly. The iPad at your register is provided by Belly, but you’ll still need to pay a monthly subscription fee to use the system. The smaller companies Belly is targeting as potential clients may not have the budget to stick with the program; there’s no definitive answer as to when the universal loyalty program will hit the ideal cost-benefit ratio.

Finally, this isn’t quite a con, but it is a word of caution. Don’t offer only cutesy deals. The traditional “buy 10, get one free” loyalty programs are clear in the perks they offer to regular customers. Free merchandise is a more tangible reward than a crazy experience. So unless you are intentionally building a base of clients who seek out the strange and unusual, be sure to offer plenty of classic rewards too.

Pros for Customers

For customers, the big benefit is ease of use. Unlike most other check-in deal systems, such as Foursquare, Belly does not require a smartphone for its members. Anybody can register on the in-store iPad and then use the loyalty card at any participating location. It’s a small extra that makes the program more broadly accessible.

No matter what medium you use, smartphone or loyalty card, Belly offers a good way of combining many stores’ loyalty programs into one easy system. You can keep a log of your favorite places and track how many points you need to achieve your desired reward. It’s simple and convenient.

Another bonus is that Belly awards points based on the number of visits, not on money spent. Checking in at a sandwich shop just twice can earn you a free drink, even though you might have spent less than $20 at the store. Additionally, the company’s iPad will alert you when you’ve earned a new perk, and you can cash in on perks as many times as you earn them.

Cons for Customers

Belly has been promoting its service as a way to consolidate all of your loyalty and rewards programs under a single umbrella program. In theory, this is an excellent mission, but in practice, the scope is a bit limited. The company is still mostly operating in its home city of Chicago, although it has started rolling out in more cities across the country.

Even if you live in a city with Belly locations, the likelihood that your favorite business is using the system is hit-and-miss. The company is mostly marketing itself to small and mid-sized businesses, so don’t expect to see the Belly iPads at major chains just yet.

The Conclusion?

For customers who enjoy supporting their favorite local merchants, there’s no reason not to use Belly. Loyalty programs are popular for a reason, especially as more people continue to pinch pennies in an uncertain economy. The idea of streamlining the process with Belly’s universal rewards will probably continue to attract followers.

For the owners of small or medium-sized companies, Belly offers a lot of benefits — like keeping your customers engaged and excited about your products. If you can swing the financial commitment, then this may be a good option for connecting with your customers on a deeper level. Keep in mind that it’s been around for less that a year, so there’s a strong potential for growth, both in members and companies participating.

Do you have any experience with Belly? Let us know in the comments!

[Image credits: Belly, Kreg Steppe, Sarah Reid, Anthony Kelly, striatic]