The Rapidian

Foursquare moves from the schoolyard, to cyberspace.

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When I was younger, I played a game called Four Square during recess at my elementary school. The goal of the game was to obtain the primary square and remain there as long as possible before being eliminated and bumped down to the lowest square. Now, as an adult, I find myself playing once again, but this time, with a social networking, geo-locational, micro-blogging twist. It takes the simple concept of Twitters question“What am I doing?” and adds the when, where, why and who to the mix. Although it may seem more of a social application, it has pulled a few marketing tools from its hat, stuffed a lot of potential tricks up its sleeve, and has placed itself onstage with its competitors--Gowalla, Yelp, loopt, and Brightkite--to provide some social-advertising magic.

To understand the business possibilities of the service one must understand how it relates to the user. Users venture out to any place they want and “Check-in” at a venue. Foursquare has made easy to do so by creating an iPhone, Android, Blackberry or Palm Pre application. If you don’t have a phone with the ability to run these apps you can also use their mobile web site, or SMS (text message) your whereabouts by sending “@ Place ! Shout-out,” to 50500, with "Place" being the venue, and "Shout-out" being your micro-blog statement. This notice can be sent to other friends using Foursquare as well as posted to Twitter and Facebook. If you post some form of open invitation in your Shout-out, those who receive your message via one of the aforementioned social sites will also receive the venue's name, address, and a shortened URL which directs you to the Foursquare hosted web page for that particular establishment. Once checked-in, any points that the user receives are tallied and can be displayed along with any badges, tips, to-do’s and deals relevant to the venue, depending on the method used to check-in.

The point system is currently being tweaked and is used primarily as a ranking system for bragging rights, but Foursquare is open to suggestions for other uses such as a recent joint venture with Pepsi. Four cents were donated for every point accrued on the New York leaderboard last year to Camplnteravtive, an organization that uses technology to engage inner-city youths. For another example, Foursquare has partnered with a company called Tasti D-Lite who uses the points as a redeemable commodity towards their goods as well as incorporating their loyalty card. Enabling the use of the Tasti D-Lite loyalty card with Foursquare allows patrons to automatically check in with Foursquare when their loyalty card is swiped, eliminating the need to use a cell phone. A system like this not only encourages repeat business but also advertises the business with every purchase. The purchase builds points which create a stronger customer/company relationship. That, in turn, encourages further purchases and repeats the cycle with the added benefit of drawing the attention of those in the customers’ social networking circle.

Users can also post “Tips” so that others who check in at that site may sample some of the best (or avoid the worst) of what the venue has to offer. A recent tip I received was to “Try the crack fries…” from Derek, which, instantly popped up on my phone after checking in at HopCat (I use the Android version of the Foursquare application). I had no idea what they were, but after checking the menu and asking the waiter, I was instantly intrigued. As I waited for my Crack Fries to emerge from the kitchen I began running scenarios on how this could be used to the businesses advantage. Even a seemingly negative tip could be treated as an opportunity and corrected. The offended tipster could then be contacted through a preferred social medium and invited back in hopes of a retraction of any marks made against the establishment by showing firsthand how their comments had created a response of change. Positive tips, such as the recommendation regarding the fries, could be used to showcase what the customers view as “in-house” specialties, promotional opportunities, or simply a testimonial of a satisfied customer.

Businesses can use Foursquare to advertise deals on whatever they offer, whenever they want and as often as they want. Venue owners need only submit their offer on Foursquare.

The idea of “Mayors, a Foursquare concept designed to keep track of who checks in the most at every establishment, also adds interest. This is how the new game really relates to the old schoolyard classic. Holding mayorship of an establishment is similar to the coveted primary square; whomever has the most check-ins at a particular spot becomes the current mayor, strives to keep their mayorship status as long as possible, and knocks the previous one down in rank

The title of "Mayor" can carry as much or as little fanfare as the venue deems appropriate. To further fuel the fire of competition, a venue can offer rewards through the same deals portal with advertisements aimed strictly at anyone who holds the title of “Mayor” at their particular venue. You can then reward those who show the most loyalty, entice new customers, or pepper the two offers at key operational times based on the needs of the company utilizing a more hybrid approach.

Foursquare has also released their API (Application Programming Interface) for those willing to dabble in creating applications based on more specific needs or information using Foursquares database. Some public examples of applications that have been created using this include:

· Social Great; which tracks venue trends and popularity from Foursquare check-ins.

· Where Do You Go; which visualizes your check-ins with a heat map.

· Last Night’s Check-ins; which creates a diary of check-ins not limited to 140 characters

· Photocheck. In; check-in by taking a photo of the venue (Android and iPhone only).

· PlaceWidget; allows venues to show off Foursquare participation and tips.

· Oyster; although only used in London to show subway (transit) swipes on Foursquare, it is an example of how Foursquare can be tethered to other services.

I’ve been lucky in having a job that lets me travel and I still believe that you can never appreciate the true beauty of another place if you can’t see the wonders in your own backyard. I am not native to Grand Rapids, and for a long time I fought with living here. Now that I’ve settled down around a city I call home it’s heartwarming to get an open invitation from a stranger to grab a cup of coffee, or meet-up at the movies. It’s exciting to hear that a vendor in my area is welcoming me to their establishment, and even though I’ve never met the owner, I know their face and first name. I also find it inspiring that a group of organizations can decide to band together to help to break down the walls of a company, by investing in their customers, to help create a community.

From big corporations to single storefronts, the most beneficial and cost productive way to advertise is through word of mouth. In today’s socially-driven marketplace, being able to reach customers through cyber-interaction has become increasingly important. Companies like Dell and Target have turned a 140 character limit into a portal for profit by advertising daily deals. While this strategy has become fruitful, it is still limited as they are meant more for clearing out merchandise rather than drawing in a new customer base to the original product or service. When put into perspective, the company is the playground. Foursquare has created a set of rules, provided the equipment, and is willing to help find players. The consumers are out in the world, going from court to court trying to find an activity that sparks their repeated attention. The question this poses is simple; when will you start playing?

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