Figuring Out Foursquare

The location-based social media service can be an asset to dining programs, if operators know how to use it.

By Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

COLLEGE STATION, Texas—Compared to the omnipresence of Facebook and Twitter, Foursquare still remains a mystery to many universities. Not so at 50,000-student Texas A&M University, where the university was the third college [after Harvard and Duke] to officially partner with the location-based social networking service. Foursquare allows users to connect with friends and update their location. Points are awarded for “checking in” at locations with their mobile devices. This allows users to find friends nearby, earn badges, which show the user’s loyalty to a certain location. Loyalty is rewarded by crowning a “mayor” to the person who has checked in the most at a location.

“We have been involved with Foursquare for over a year now,” says Diane C. McDonald, director of social media for the university. “Students came to us and said they wanted Foursquare for Texas A&M. We had several reasons for partnering with the services. Our students were telling us that it was a great way to connect with each other and keep up connections through the geo-location services, especially because our campus is so large. So we liked the campus exploration aspect and the fact that it gets our students, staff and faculty to explore campus like they never did before. We also like that it offers the ability to reward and incentivize behaviors on campus. We do some fun giveaways, scavenger hunts, check-in specials, mayorship rewards for people who are loyal. Now we have close to 20,000 followers—and this is College Station, not a huge urban center like New York or Boston. We’ve really been working to build up our Foursquare program for our community from the start.”

McDonald’s department manages social media strategy for the entire campus. She works closely with Stacey Rugh, assistant director of marketing and communications for dining, since dining is a key department in the university’s Foursquare strategy. McDonald says the partnership with Foursquare allowed A&M to launch a custom badge—the Texas Aggie badge. The university gave Foursquare permission to use its logo and artwork on the badge and distribute that artwork throughout the Foursquare network. McDonald says her department likes the badge because, on Foursquare, badges are a key component of a user’s identity.

“You can glance at [a user’s] badges and quickly get to know that person,” McDonald says. “If you see a Starbucks badge, you know that user is a coffee drinker. If you see the Texas Aggie badge, you know that person is an Aggie.”

McDonald says a new “Lists” feature that was launched in August has helped with the department’s goal of getting students to explore campus.

“If you go to the front page of our Foursquare page we’ve been working to create custom lists where a user can take our lists and include their own tips,” McDonald says. “For example, we have a list for our welcome back week called Gig ’Em Week. We have a list of all the events that we recommend students do, whether it’s our ice cream social or our pizza party. We put the entire schedule that on the Gig ’Em Week list and users can download that to their to-do list. No more carrying around [a printed] schedule for welcome week. The lists are pretty unique in that they contain branded tips that we’ve selected that are written about each venue. The tips may be written by us or by a user. So they can be reading a tip from another student. For example, our seniors and upperclassman can write tips about the university and then, years from now, freshmen can come to the campus and get the inside scoop on the best places to get a cup of coffee on campus. We’re looking at adding a list of best places to eat on campus, which is always a question we get. We have many existing and new dining facilities that we can add to that list. We’ll have folks coming back to campus to visit and they can pull up this list and get a quick list and tips from students about those places to eat. We’re really excited about that part of Foursquare.”

McDonald says all of dining’s venues are listed on Foursquare, including relevant tips for each venue such as where to get the best cookies on campus. Another way dining has been involved with the university’s Foursquare strategy is as part of a social media scavenger hunt the department hosted last year.

“We gave out clues around campus and students had to solve the clues and then check into that venue, on Foursquare,” McDonald says. “One of our clues took them to our University Club, which is is located at the top of a tower and overlooks campus. It’s a really nice place to dine on campus. [The scavenger hunt] drove a lot of new traffic to our University Club, and then the students could win a lunch there.”

Rugh says Foursquare also gives dining the opportunity to promote different special events.

“For example, as part of Gig ’Em Week [Foursquare] helped us promote the luncheon we were doing for freshman,” Rugh says. “We haven’t gone into rewarding mayors or anything like that yet. It’s something we’ve talked about quite a bit, but it gets to be a little more complicated when you are dealing with meal plans versus cash customers. We’re such a large operation that it becomes a challenge for us to disseminate information and keep everything on the same page. Diane and I [talk] about it frequently and it’s definitely something we want to get into. We just have to be a little methodical about it. We’re moving toward a declining balance-type meal plan so I really think that Foursquare will be able to help us in that transition period.”

McDonald says she likes Foursquare, as compared to Facebook and Twitter, because it gets users away from their computers.

“I always like to say that students can get to know us through our website, through Facebook and through Twitter,” McDonald says. “Foursquare lets them get out into the real world and make real-world connections. That’s something that Facebook and Twitter don’t offer. One of the things that came out of our scavenger hunt is that students who were participating met one another while they were participating. A lot of our students became friends through the scavenger hunt because they met face to face. Foursquare takes students away from the computer and gets them to explore and connect. That’s very much a part of student life.”

The biggest challenge, according to McDonald and Rugh, is that much like other social media services, Foursquare invites users to write whatever they want about dining.

“Any user can leave any tip about any venue on our campus,” McDonald says. “That’s the authenticity of Foursquare. So when we first launched it we wondered if we would get what I call ‘virtual graffiti.’ So far, I’ve been really pleased with the user-submitted tips. They are very helpful. They are making an effort to write about our venues. We’re excited to see that kind of thing happen.”

“It also provides us with feedback,” Rugh adds. “We operate like any other restaurant would and there may be challenges and things we are not aware of. I’m with Diane in that I would hate it if they were just slapping up graffiti typing, but it also gives us the opportunity to see if there are issues out there we need to address. The biggest thing is just being able to maintain it. With all of the different social media tools that we are involved with it’s constantly a challenge to keep up with everything, and Foursquare is no different. Our approach is a little different because our [social media strategy] goes from the university level down. We have Diane and her team who are able to assist us with it.”

McDonald says the way her department maintains all social media is the way it began—with students.

“We have a student intern on our staff who is a former visitor’s guide for our university, so he knows the campus inside and out,” McDonald says. “He helped set up our initial program. Then he and I talked to the different departments, such as dining, and helped them set up programs and specials. We coordinate the bigger programs like the scavenger hunt. We helped build the lists out. We do a lot of the heavy lifting. Our goal at the university level is to help our departments achieve their social media goals. If they want to increase traffic to a certain dining hall or if they have a certain event to promote we get that information and figure out the best ways to get that out on Foursquare. It seems to work out really well.”