The Game of Life: Engaging Members Through Foursquare

By: Kristin Clarke

Foursquare, a geolocation-based platform used by millions of people worldwide each day, can bolster an organization’s social media presence, engage and excite members, and build your brand in a fun, playful way. Carmine Gallo, author of The Power of Foursquare, explains this emerging tool and why associations should use it—today.

Foursquare is something that you just have to get. You don't have to download the geolocation application to your own smartphone—although 34,000 others will do so to theirs today—but you do need to understand why its users just surpassed 1 billion "check-ins" recently. In a word, it's fun.

The goal of Foursquare is simply to make life more enjoyable. It succeeds by offering simple incentives—everything from extra desserts to virtual badges to made-up titles like "mayor"— that inspire people to try new experiences, reward them for their loyalties, and strengthen their ties to friends, family, communities, and brands. Plus, it's free, quick, and addictive.

The numbers are staggering:

  • People "check in"—the act of indicating a venue where you are located—to Foursquare 23 times per second from every city in every nation worldwide. The platform becomes "smarter" the more people check in.
  • More than 500,000 businesses are official Foursquare merchants that offer incentives, tips, rewards, and insider information when members check-in at their venues. Cost? Nothing.

"Any organization, in just a few minutes, can visit and claim a venue, which is when you establish a formal partnership with Foursquare," says Carmine Gallo, author of The Power of Foursquare: 7 Innovative Ways to Get Your Customers to Check In Wherever They Are. "An automatic call-back service confirms that you are who you say you are, and once you do that, you're ready to start actively engaging people on the platform."  

But why bother? An association is hardly a bar or shop that can offer free nachos to anyone checking in to Foursquare before 6 p.m., nor are most associations known for being into games.

And Foursquare is certainly that, judging by the avid commitment shown by many users to collecting badges, retaining a mayor title at a favorite coffee shop, and sharing reviews and tips that may improve the next user's experience of a venue. 

But whether you are a gamer or not is beside the point, because your members are.

"It doesn't matter if you're interested in it or not," Gallo says. "American Express established a partnership with Foursquare, and when it did, [Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer] Edward Gilligan said, 'We go where our customers are, and they are increasingly in places like Foursquare.'

"That's my initial reaction to anyone who says, 'I don't think this is relevant to me.' It probably isn't, but your customers are already using it. People you engage with already are on platforms like Foursquare. Why don't you meet them there? We know this is where social media is going: the mobile device. What a great way of starting that conversation on mobile in a free and easy way. That's how I look at it from a business perspective."

"I don't care about becoming a 'mayor' of any place," Gallo continues. "But a lot of companies and brands are using Foursquare as a means of leveraging their conversation with customers and clients, and they're also encouraging people to share that experience with their larger social networks on Twitter and Facebook.

"Mayorships are just part of the gaming element to it, one way that Foursquare rewards your most loyal customers, and a lot of businesses are rewarding the mayor in creative ways," such as reserving them good seats, giving them jump-the-line passes, offering discounts or freebies, and public congratulatory signage.

"You don't need a store [to serve as a check-in venue]," he says. "But you do need to be creative. … When I was in New York, I saw a traveling exhibition called Bodies. It's on Foursquare, so it's not like you're checking in to a store; you can create a venue around anything. The [organizers] … ask you to tweet out a piece of trivia you learned from the exhibition so you could get something special before you leave."

Gallo says his favorite myth about geolocation technology is that it "is somehow a new app that follows your every move. 'Geolocation' means it uses your phone's global positioning system (GPS) to send you relevant info, so if you use mobile Yelp, Google Maps, Siri on iPhone 4S, those are all 'geolocation.' It's not Big Brother." 

Gallo talks more about how and why associations should consider adding Foursquare to their communication strategy in the interview below.

Kristin Clarke: Do you agree with Angel Aristone, communications and social media director at Six Flags, who told you that "Foursquare is the biggest success story in social media right now?"

Carmine Gallo: It's definitely the newest success story in social media. For some people I've talked to—and I've interviewed about 50 businesses using Foursquare around the world—… it's one of the most powerful new marketing tools to come around in a long time.

However, the caveat is that the power of Foursquare is really captured and released when used in conjunction with your current social media platform like Twitter and Facebook.

When I've talked to business leaders, there seems to be a trifecta going on. They were very aggressive on Twitter and continue to be, they have an established Facebook presence, and it seems as though the ones that are very successful now are using Foursquare to extend their social media presence to a completely new category of consumers and users who are on their smartphones, which is where many of us basically are living our lives.

Do you see this fascination with location as just a trend that will wear off for mobile users, or is geo-location here to stay as an increasingly powerful tool for businesses and organizations?

I've thought about that myself. I'm not a technology forecaster. I'm very skeptical, not of Foursquare per se, but of any new tech trend that comes around and has people saying, 'This is going to be the next hot thing forever,' like for Groupon.

The only thing I can tell you is what I hear from marketing professionals using Foursquare and other mobile tools pretty aggressively. They don't see any reason to stop using Foursquare. They've been testing it and using it for at least one to two years. In fact, it's an integral part of their marketing plans.

I've interviewed the head of [information technology] for Tasti D-Lite, a chain of ice cream shops mostly in New York and on the East Coast. They find that 17 percent of their customers are on Foursquare … and those customers are among their most loyal customers. They return quite often to check in on Foursquare and to get rewarded with the specials and promotions that the company pushes to people on their mobile devices.

When I asked him that same question [about whether geo-location gaming is just a trend], he says, 'For us, it's … an essential part of our marketing mix because it's working so well.' He knows that the majority of people who check in at one of their ice cream shops to unlock a special will share that special with their friends on Twitter and Facebook, and that's how it becomes viral.

I've also talked to the marketing head of one of the largest real estate companies in the country called the Corcoran Group in New York City. … It uses Foursquare to provide meaningful and insightful information about neighborhoods everywhere in the city, so whenever people check in at a museum, a hotel, or a famous landmark, they are likely to get information from the Corcoran Group.

[According to the Corcoran Group], Foursquare is one of the most powerful marketing tools that have come along in a long time. … They are finding that their Foursquare followers doubled the number of their Twitter followers, and people on their mobile devices are engaged on their website far longer that people who are engaged when they visit the website on a desktop. Corcoran likes this whole idea of engaging people in a completely new way on their mobile devices.

The third thing I'll add is that we know from recent research that 40 percent of teenagers use geolocation services. That number is slightly lower for adults, but young people are more and more comfortable using these kinds of services.

Is it the combination with gaming and the tie-in to incentives like badges, titles, and rewards that motivates even people who aren't, say, video game players or Angry Bird fanatics to still participate with Foursquare?

And there's a money savings element to it as well. My wife loves checking into stores when they'll get her $25 off if she spends $75 or more if she checks in to get that special. It introduces her to new stores that otherwise she would not have gone in to. That's what I mean when I say that Foursquare is a powerful new way for businesses to attract, reward, and engage people in ways that weren't possible before the smartphone.

You talk about a number of nonprofits that have used Foursquare, including the American Red Cross and its badge, and Earthjustice's successful billboard fundraising check-in event. Can you tell us about them briefly?

If you check in to a Red Cross tag center and give blood, you get a Red Cross badge. Badges are interesting. Again, I don't care about badges, but people collect these as trophies, and they share these badges with people and have fun with this. For instance, there's the Bender Badge, which means you have checked in four different nights into different bars or restaurants. …

… As a nonprofit, you can do something as simple as offering a badge, but there are so many more interesting things to do on Foursquare. Let me offer you a great example. Earthjustice in California … was given billboard space at Bay Area Rapid Transit subway stations in San Francisco, and an anonymous donor wanted to donate money to fund certain causes like save the pica, a little mouse-like animal of the desert. … [The organization] also wanted to [support] Keep Lake Tahoe Blue, which is a big environmental cause in California.

[The donor] wanted to give money but didn't want to just donate; he wanted other people to take an interest in these causes and to engage people … so Earthjustice created a venue around the billboards that tagged them as a place, just like a pub or a gym.

The organization had a description on the bottom, something like, "Check into Foursquare, and I'll donate $10 to Keep Lake Tahoe Blue." They raised $50,000 within about two weeks of the campaign just because people were standing on platforms at a train station looking at a billboard and thinking, 'All I have to do is check in to do that? I think I'll try that.'

Very closely tied to that is Walgreens. Walgreens Pharmacy has been doing something interesting this year.

It's flu season, so rather than give you a discount on something just for coming in, the company decided, 'We're going to incentivize you to check in to do something good.' When you check in at a Walgreens during flu season, it donates a voucher for a free flu shot to somebody in need. It's raising $6 million worth of free flu shots that are distributed by a particular organization just for checking in! That's a creative use of what people are doing on their mobile devices.

You also note that the hospitality industry has caught on to the power of Foursquare. Can you talk about how companies that associations often deal with, such as convention and visitors bureaus, have adopted Foursquare as a marketing and engagement strategy as well?

The hospitality people are going nuts over this. Because it's geolocation-based, it seems like a natural extension for hospitality venues to engage in mobile marketing through an application like Foursquare.

One interesting case study is VisitPA, [which promotes tourism and meetings in Pennsylvania]. VisitPA has partnered with Foursquare and local businesses to give a more heightened level of experience to people who visit. …

… It has three badges you can win by checking into certain places. One is called the Shooflyer Badge, which is focused on food that is uniquely Pennsylvanian. The second is the Polka Badge for retail shopping destinations. And the third is the '4 Score & 7' Badge, which promotes check-ins at historical landmarks.

VisitPA has 89,000 followers on Foursquare right now. … [According to the Pennsylvania Office of Tourism, the Foursquare campaign generates 800 to 1,000 followers a week.] … When you follow a brand, its content gets pushed to your mobile phone whenever you check in.

I love that idea, because associations are always looking for ways to improve their meetings experience. Many people bring their families as well, so getting them out into the area and inspiring them to do new things or to enjoy discounts is great.

What's interesting about what you just said is that this is the overall vision of Foursquare. It unlocks your city and makes your world a more interesting place. It's not just sitting at your computer and talking to people. It actually encourages you to get out and explore, which is the fun part.

Engaging members is absolutely critical to associations, and Foursquare offers this. Can you think of some ways that organizations might pilot a Foursquare strategy at their convention or through their education program?

Conventions are a no-brainer—absolutely. It's all about engagement. People who have booths there … get upset if they don't have enough people coming to the booth, right? Why don't you create a very simple thing where you [make booths into check-in spots]?

You can come up with so many different creative strategies: "Go to a booth, then come back to the information center and tell us one thing that company does, and we'll give you free tickets to next year's conference [after-party] limited to the first 50 people."

You can do anything you want; you're only limited by your own creativity, but I would offer this: At a conference, partner with the convention location itself to offer special promotions just for checking into the convention or to you as an association. Since you have control over the booths at the conference, you can encourage people to check into different booths and get something in return. You can do the same all around the city and get local businesses involved, too.

Foursquare is a conversation tool. … Leaving tips and meaningful information in relevant places is the conversation. … Give people unique little insights into your place of business and make it fun and relevant. Turn it into a game! The ones finding the most success are the ones doing the most playful, fun things with it.

I could see how that would add value to the sponsors and exhibitors, not just one company doing it like Corcoran but offering that opportunity to numerous exhibitors, such as a sponsored tip. These could be a great value-added for them.

The conference organizer has to coordinate with the hotels and the exhibitors. It's the organizer who can actually create most of this; the individual contributors just have to sign on that they're going to do something as a reward, but they don't have to be the ones that go on the Foursquare account and create it.

The association could be the facilitator and show the exhibitors how to use this tool at the event. That could be interesting. What types of metrics can associations and their business partners expect to gain from Foursquare activity?

Foursquare offers a robust set of merchant tools—"a merchant platform"—that are analytics and data, so you can certainly see who's checking in to all of your vendors and places you've established. And it's a complete breakdown, such as what [day and time] they're checking, male-female distribution of check-ins, Twitter accounts of foursquare users, et cetera.

It shows a chart, and that's all free to anyone who establishes a venue. It's pulled from the individual profiles of the people checking in.

You write that "Mobile social networks like Foursquare are redefining customer loyalty." How so?

The people designated as the mayor are your most loyal customers, because the mayor is the person who has checked in the most over the last six days.

What's interesting about the mayor is that everywhere I go there's a mayor, even an office building. People just want to check in. … It's crazy, but smart businesses know that if you reward the mayors in a special way, they'll keep coming back again and will create a little competition among people to become the mayor of the place.

How do you think Foursquare might evolve for businesses and organizations?

Some say more and more partnerships. ESPN is working on a partnership with Foursquare now to get people to check into stadiums and events, so even if they're not at a physical stadium, they can check in to a certain game and get prizes for checking in.

ESPN is experimenting with it, and you're going to see more partnerships because there have to be more businesses actively engaging with people on Foursquare or people may get tired of just checking in without getting anything back except the internal gratification of a mayorship. …

… Foursquare has 500,000 merchants active on the platform already but plenty of room for more. It's always adding new features … and it's certainly experimenting with more passive check-ins as well, ways of checking you in automatically when you enter a building or place of business.

Do you have any idea of the costs or requirements around building a custom badge for Foursquare?

There's definitely a range, and it's something the company keeps quiet. They do that for a reason. There's value in scarcity. You can't have every single person having a badge … but you can certainly contact the Business Development Department. They're very good at getting back to people, and they're always looking for more and creative partnerships. …

… Today, [geolocation applications are] an interesting and robust method of marketing to this new category of customers that continues to grow.

Kristin Clarke is a business journalist and editor for ASAE and the ASAE Convene Green Alliance. Email: [email protected]

Want to learn more? Carmine Gallo will be a general session speaker at the 2012 Great Ideas Conference at The Broadmoor in Colorado, March 25-27, 2012.

Also see "The Favorites Game: Foursquare at the Forefront," Associations Now, December 2011.

Kristin Clarke

Kristin Clarke is books editor for Associations Now and a business journalist and sustainability director for ASAE.