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Allyson Kapin 8 min read

Foursquare: Novelty or Buzz Worthy?

It’s no secret that I’m a bit of an app junkie, but I’m also one of the biggest critics of developers putting out useless apps that have little value to end-users and are nothing more then a novelty. So, when Foursquare (a location based social network app that tracks your location and shares it with friends when you “check-in” to places) emerged as the “next big thing” at SXSWi, I questioned whether FourSquare could really live up to its buzz. After all, do we really care about tracking our friends and colleagues whereabouts on a Monday afternoon at 2PM or that they are the “Mayor” (an honor you earn if you have been to a place more than anyone else) of their local coffee shop? Sure the competitive nature of trying to become “Mayor” is fun, and discovering new things about your city is cool. Personally, I think the real value of Foursquare is the community aspect and seeing friends’ recommendations on local places near the area where they checked in. However, “Foursquare users still seem to be more focused on the competition surrounding mayorships and badge acquisition than they are around sharing valuable information,” said Jenny Mackintosh, a social media consultant at Boston University.

So is Foursquare valuable enough to become the next Facebook or Twitter? Should nonprofits take a more serious look at FourSquare and explore ways to leverage it?

“I think Foursquare’s seamless integration with Facebook and Twitter – tools people already use and the social recognition that comes with obtaining badges, points, etc… is why it was dubbed the breakout technology of 2010,” said Carie Lewis who manages the Humane Society of the United States social media.

HSUS has created a profile on Foursquare and are currently trying to figure out how to utilize it best – whether it's encouraging members to check in where HSUS is holding events or “something more elusive like where our CEO is. Whatever we do, we want to make sure it's actually useful for us and tied to the goals of our social media program, not just buying into ‘shiny object syndrome,’ ” said Lewis.

Since Foursquare launched in 2009, the team says on their blog that they have come a long way with:

  • Over 500,000 users 
  • Over 1 million badges have been awarded
  • Over 1.4 million venues with 1200 offering promotions
  • Over 15.5 million check-ins

Geoff Livingston of Zoetica Media, says Foursquare has reached the tipping point. “There are enough GPS enabled smartphones on the market that people can use it. The curiosity and fun factor are there and users of other social networks can’t escape the check-ins posted on every popular social network.”

However, Livingston says “Foursquare has yet to unveil a nonprofit component, and at this point it’s a pay-to-play social network.  And it has been so costly for badges that in a few instances we’ve suggested alternative mobile solutions which would yield better results per dollar.”  

Livingston raises good points about Foursquare and nonprofits. CampInteractive, a Bronx-based nonprofit raised $10K after Pepsi offered to sponsor the NYC leaderboad on Foursquare in December 2009 as part of their “Refresh Everything” community-giving initiative to help raise money for the organization. The points earned by checking in were transferred into dollars at the rate of 4 cents per point. The organization was local, which may have compelled more New York-network members to participate, said Mackintosh. Foursquare’s embedded leaderboard kept up morale and boosted the competitive nature of the campaign. Would CampInteractive have been able to raise the $10K without a partnership between Foursquare (they helped secure the sponsor and promoted it) and Pepsi though?

“Geolocation is such a hot topic right now. Therefore just like with any other new technology I think nonprofits should explore it and see if there's a fit,” said Lewis.

Interested in testing out Foursquare as part of your online outreach strategy? Start by trying to figure out the overlap between where people in your target audience will be checking in and what change they can affect on the issues at those locations, said Mike Panetta of the Beekeeper Group.

“For example, if were trying to get people to stop eating Chilean Sea Bass, I would promote a recommendation along the lines of, ‘Please don't get Chilean Sea Bass, as it's over-fished and in danger of becoming extinct. Why not try a nice tuna instead?’ to be added to restaurants and supermarkets.”

Panetta warns though “for the most part, people lead predictable lives. Expect to see a lot of check-ins at supermarkets, big box retail stores, chain restaurants, etc. Think strategically about how you can get them to do something for you in those establishments, after all they will have their smartphone in their hand.”

What do you think? Novelty or total buzz?

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Allyson Kapin

Allyson has been named one of "Top Tech Titans" by the Washingtonian, one of the Most Influential Women In Tech by Fast Company, and one of the top 30 women entrepreneurs to follow on Twitter by Forbes for her leadership role in technology and social media. As Founding Partner of Rad Campaign, she leads the firm's client and online strategic services. For over a decade Allyson has helped non-profit organizations and political campaigns create dynamic and award-winning websites and online marketing and recruitment campaigns. She works side-by-side with her clients to meet their web needs and maximize their online effectiveness to create real world impact.