Building an Army of Hyper-Local, Mobile-Connected Advocates

Or, Why Marketers Should Pay Attention to Foursquare

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Allison Mooney
Allison Mooney
No, this isn't "the year for location" in mobile. That phrase has become industry cliche by now. But it's hard to ignore the hype that one location-based service called Foursquare is getting in some circles -- and no advertiser should. The NYC-based startup has built a sticky platform, an avid fan base and, quite possibly, the next-generation platform for proximity marketing.

Foursquare bills itself as 50% friend finder, 30% social city guide, 20% nightlife game. Basically, you tell it where you are (a bar, a park, a museum, whatever) by "checking in" (via iPhone app, SMS or mobile site). The service then tells your network of friends, recommends things to do in the area, and awards you points and badges for your activity. It also lets you recommend things other people should do and track what you have done yourself.

Part of the appeal of the service is how it links the digital and "real" worlds -- truly putting the "social" in "social networking." After its big unveiling at SXSW, the service has garnered a passionate and growing base of early adopters (full disclosure: I'm an alpha tester and "super user" myself). The other weekend, some avid Foursquarers in New York even organized a bar crawl, called Town Holler, for people who'd achieved "mayor" status at a certain venue.

Credit: Dan Maccarone
Co-founder Dennis Crowley puts it this way: "I think Foursquare found some kind of sweet spot between the intersection of social utility (Hey, I know where my friends are), sharing/oversharing (I log everywhere I go/everything I do) and gaming/rewards (every check-in gives you a little piece of candy)."

Foursquare is designed with these game dynamics in mind, and it's the absurd appeal of its reward that makes the service so "sticky."

"Even after having written the code that makes the badges work, I still find them absurdly compelling," says Crowley. He recently checked in all over Manhattan's Upper West Side to get Foursquare's "Douchebag" badge). For me, it often takes the place of making plans. I can just see where people are congregating and swing by (note to users: refrain from checking in on a date or other private engagement). If I do make plans, I'll often choose to hit a place in order to snag the "mayorship" or get a new badge. People are now checking in at the gym, at work, from the supermarket -- I even saw one from a free clinic recently -- all in an effort to score points and stay socially connected.

This is a concept we'll see more and more of -- in fact, the team behind "World of Warcraft" just released an app called Booyah Society that rewards users for status updates.

Some are calling it "the next Twitter" and Mashable describes it as following the same evolution: breakout at SXSW, passionate early adopters, media, naysayers, misunderstanding ... Also, like Twitter, you need to use it to "get it."

This usage may look very different depending on the person. As Crowley says, "The product is really complex -- score, leaderboards, friends, tips, to-dos, etc. -- and I think different parts of the product speak to different people. If you get on Twitter and search for Foursquare, you find people who think it's 'Delicious for places!' or 'Twitter with location!' or 'Loopt, but with points!'"

Many people already use Facebook status updates and Twitter to share their locations -- witness the "tweetup" -- so Foursquare is tapping into an existing behavior. But the fact that it's actually tied to location through GPS coordinates is what makes all the difference -- and the potential for advertisers, especially on a local level. As The New York Times recently pointed out, local businesses need to manage their online reputations and engage with tech-savvy customers to promote themselves in the social-media channels. Foursquare presents the perfect opportunity to do this.

"There are a ton of branding and marketing opportunities and we're approached by people all the time -- sponsored badges, sponsored mayorships, etc.," Crowley told me. "What [co-founder] Naveen [Selvadurai] and I feel really good about is building two things at once -- things that make it easier/more fun for our users explore the city (tips, finding friends, badges) and things that make it easier for venues to reach out to their most loyal/vocal/early-adopter users. For example, it would cost $5 for a restaurant to give my brother a free dessert for being mayor, but with Foursquare linked to Twitter (read word-of-mouth), that $5 could go a long way towards driving people to that venue. The local ad market has long been underserved -- and that means one thing to a lot of companies (e.g., finding nearby doctors and dentists and lawyers and lawn care, etc.) but something different to us (cafes, restaurants, pubs, bars)."

Another advantage of Foursquare is its location data, which can measure foot traffic to a store, proving quantifiable ROI for an advertiser. Charlie O'Donnell points out that this is the missing ingredient for Yelp. Beyond that, though, Foursquare can provide an incredibly compelling data set for anyone interested in consumer behavior (check out Social Great, which shows the most popular venues based on check-in data).

Credit: Dennis Crowley

The startup is working on tools for local businesses that will help them with promotions and tracking, but we're already seeing some take it into their own hands. Destination Bar in New York's East Village and Marsh Cafe in San Francisco offer free drinks to the "mayor," and Southside Coffee in Brooklyn listed the "mayor" on a chalkboard outside. Think about that -- an incentive purely based on social capital! I can't remember the last time that I (or anyone I know under 50) clipped and redeemed a coupon -- these sorts of social incentives could be the new discounts.

Foursquare is available in 21 cities (mostly in the U.S.) with others on the way. Right now, the service has a strictly urbanite appeal, and it could inhabit this niche quite nicely. However, if local offers are incorporated in a compelling way as its coverage area expands, it could certainly head towards the mainstream. I can also see people using it just to discover what's around them, regardless of telling people where they are. I'll get toro at Ki Sushi since Carter P. tells me it's the best in the city, or I'll hit up an ATM if I go to Trout when D.M. warns that it's cash only.

Advertisers -- both local and national -- would be smart to start thinking about their "location" strategies while there's still a relatively open playing field. By taking advantage of mobile platforms like Foursquare, ones that engage and offer incentives to consumers within the proverbial "last 50 feet," businesses can bring all the advantages of the social web to their front door.

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Allison Mooney is VP-director of trends and insights at MobileBehavior, an Omnicom Group Company, and runs their blog Next Great Thing.

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