“Check-in.” “You are the mayor.” “You’ve earned the Bender Badge.” If you know what I’m talking about, you’re one of the growing number of users of Foursquare, a company that’s on the verge of becoming a household name like Twitter. And it’s a service that area businesses can leverage to increase awareness and gain more devoted customers.

Foursquare is a social networking site built around using your mobile devices to check into locations you visit and connect with friends. Users are often rewarded with discounts and achievements called badges. Foursquare joins Foursquare and Brightkite in the arena of location-based social networks, and combined, they have more than 2 million users worldwide.

So what does this mean for businesses? Right now, mostly retail businesses such as restaurants and coffee shops are using this new platform. For them, Foursquare and the other location-based social networks serve as a public loyalty program, providing business owners with valuable information about customers while making it easy for customers to share their favorite places with their friends. It gives new opportunities for businesses to promote themselves and build relationships with customers. Foursquare lists 1.4 million businesses worldwide.
Businesses are leveraging Foursquare to increase retail traffic by:
  • Offering discounts: You can give a small discount to users who check in and show their mobile device. It can be an everyday discount or on certain days.
  • Using a virtual reward card: The Foursquare application keeps track of how many times someone has checked into your business. It rewards frequent customers without requiring a reward card for you to punch or them to keep track of and on them.
You can share with customers that on their fifth or tenth check-in they will earn a free drink, meal or some other service like a treatment in the case of a salon or spa.
  • Offering first “X” customers special: Offer a special promotion to the first ten customers to check-in during the day.
  • Giving the Mayor the VIP treatment: In Foursquare, if someone checks into a venue more than twice, he or she becomes mayor. It is very competitive because mayors can be ousted if someone else checks in more times. People take this seriously and will work to get their position back. As a business owner, you can give them a reward such as free drinks or Wi-Fi since there is only one mayor at a time. Isn’t that a great way to make your customer feel special?
  • Treating newbies: Reward first-time customers who check in with a freebie. This will give you a chance to convert a new customer into a loyal customer.
  • Attracting nearby specials: Foursquare has a “specials nearby” function that allows you to alert users to specials at your location nearby when they check-in somewhere else. This exposes your business to customers who may not know about you.
  • Planning an event: Plan an event around the “swarm” badge, which means having more than 50 people check-in to a venue at the same time. Use social media to get the word out and it draws upon people’s sense of fun. Everyone wants to be a part of something.
Local Lexington businesses are catching on. Among the early adopters of location-based social networks were the Lexington History Museum and Common Grounds Coffee House & Café. The Lexington History Museum is piloting its use of Foursquare in the gift shop on Sundays. If you check in at the museum and show your check-in on your mobile device, you’ll receive 10 percent off on Lexington History Museum marked items in the gift shop.
Common Grounds rewards its mayors with special deals. Owner Tim Davis (@espressomedic) identifies frequent visitors via Foursquare and uses social media such as a fan page as an advisory board to keep the business evolving based on customer ideas and feedback.
As a customer, you may be wondering about privacy? While you can choose to check-in and broadcast via Twitter and Facebook, you can also choose to be “off the grid.” You still can earn rewards or badges, but it won’t be public knowledge. Take a common-sense approach like:
  • Don’t check-in at home, someone else’s home, or other personal places such as your child’s school. Foursquare and other sites use GPS tagging to show your location.
  • Check-in at your location closer to when you are leaving so you still can earn rewards and badges.
If you want to have the benefits of a social network and still have privacy concerns, then RallyUp is an option. RallyUp is a recently launched social network combining private microblogging with location, allowing users to share text and photos and direct message a select group of users.
This post was originally published on Monday, 26 May 2010 in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

UPDATE 5 May 2010 — Everyone likes widgets, right? Came across Lexington Herald-Leader that creates a Foursquare widget for your business’s website. It shows how popular your place is with folks on Foursquare. I wouldn’t put this on your site until you know if folks are checking in and what they are saying. Check out Foursquare Tools for Business which shares data. Also, Foursquare has added Facebook “Like” button to venues allowing instant share to increase foot traffic.

UPDATE 27 April 2010 — I recently came across a new location-based social network launched in January 2010, Foursquare Tools for Business, which aims to be a loyalty “punch card” for local businesses. They are creating a rewards crowdsourcing platform where users can suggest deals or offers they would like to receive from businesses they regularly visit. It isn’t a game just completely a social experience. The functionality is very user-friendly for both consumers and businesses.

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