There's Nowhere to Hide | Bruce Turkel

Barry Lowenthal has been thinking about Foursquare and it’s worth hearing what he has to say:
Lately I’ve been a keen participant on Foursquare, a mobile GPS-enabled social network that launched last year at SXSW.

I was late to the game and downloaded the mobile app to my iPhone at the start of this year. In the beginning I was “checking-in” (site parlance for stating your whereabouts) everywhere and encouraging all my friends to sign up. I had visions of planning my nights out based on where my friends were congregating, hoping for big meet ups.  Currently Foursquare has about 750,000 members, picking up about 120,000 at this year’s SXSW festival. Only about 30 of my friends are signed up.

According to Foursquare, I check-in about 65 times per month or about twice each day. Currently I’m the “mayor” (you’ve been to a given place more than anyone else) of the Lite Choice on 8th Avenue and 22nd Street in Manhattan. I was enticed to go there by a Foursquare promotion, which I’ll expand on later. Sadly, despite my daily check-ins, I hold only one mayorship.

I’m not the mayor of The Media Kitchen. Jessica W. has that distinction. She dethroned Andre W. I’m not even the mayor of my co-op. But at least I’m the mayor of something.

At first I was checking-in a lot. When I arrived at work, I’d check-in. When I left for lunch, I’d check-in. Much to everyone’s surprise I am not the mayor of Aquagrill (my favorite SoHo eatery and right around the corner from my office). Jennifer M., the owner, has that distinction.

I should probably talk to her about the promotional opportunities of letting customers become the mayor, but I digress. When I left work, I’d check-in on the subway platform (I get service on the platform at Houston and Varick Streets downtown). When I’d wait in line at the Garden of Eden on 23rd Street, my favorite takeout place, I’d check-in, and finally when I got home, I’d, yup, you guessed it, check-in.

Then, after this brief frenzy of connectivity, something funny happened. I realized I really didn’t want people knowing where I was lunching and what time I was leaving work or whether I had nighttime plans.

My issue was I just wasn’t sure that my real whereabouts were reinforcing the image I wanted the world to conjure up when they thought of me. I started checking-in less and less and only when I was someplace really cool — the kind of place that reinforced my brand.

I know a lot of people don’t think their whereabouts help shape their “brand,” but being actively involved in the communications business for over 20 years, I do. Remember that seminal piece in Fast Company called “The Brand Called You”? In fact, I tell my clients all the time that where consumers encounter their brands will help shape a brand’s meaning and value. Why should my personal brand be any different?

Since I suspect a lot of people are just like me, what’s the long-term utility of these types of mobile platforms when people won’t use them truthfully? Maybe people don’t have to use them truthfully for them to succeed. Maybe they’ll be just one more way to manage my brand in social media, just like my relatively ancient Facebook status has become.

I had one particularly encouraging moment on Foursquare some weeks back that I referenced earlier. When I checked-in at  Spice, a new restaurant on 8th Ave. and 22nd, I got a promotional note saying that if I went to the Lite Choice one block away, I could supersize my order. I ordered a small and got a medium, which made me very happy. When I became the mayor, I got the same offer. I was happier still.

While I may not want everyone knowing my whereabouts, I will check-in to Foursquare whenever I go out to eat because I like getting promotional offers that are relevant and close by. For me, Foursquare, and sites like it, are becoming the modern day version of coupon clipping, something I thought I’d never do. But surprise, surprise, I like it.

The brilliance of Foursquare, and many other location-based apps, is that they satisfy many of my narcissistic primeval urges. After all, doesn’t everyone I know really care where I am and what I’m thinking right now?

But will there be a burnout factor similar to status updating on Facebook? What if I lose interest and become tired of  checking-in or just don’t want people to figure out how boring my life really is? I have a hunch that marketing in the guise of location-based couponing will keep the service fresh and intriguing at least in the near term.

Gotta jet. I just got an offer to dethrone the mayor of the Mermaid Inn and get a free lobster sandwich for my trouble. I may even try and move my business over from Aquagrill. I’ll check-in later.

Barry Lowenthal is president of The Media Kitchen, a Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners company.

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