How hotels can use Foursquare

A question on every hotel’s agenda these days is, how do we maximize social media to reach potential guests? (And if this isn’t on the itinerary, then watch out!) Most hotels already have a strong plan in place for the big three: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. (Sorry, Pinterest is not yet there, although it is growing fast.) On top of this, most savvy businesspeople are sufficiently acquainted with the ins and outs of social bookmarking sites. 

However, companies should take note of a growing tech trend, that of mobile sign-in services. The big players here include the likes of Foursquare, Gowalla and Facebook Places. For the sake of not being overly complicated, let’s focus on Foursquare — the company that has the largest growth — even though all three work by similar means.

Foursquare is designed for smart phones as a fun way for people to state to their online community where they are at any given moment. Once a person has an account, they “check in” to wherever they are via their phones, and this serves as their online status. Foursquare uses GPS technology to verify where the cellular is in the world and to keep things honest. On top of this, people can be awarded “Mayor” status by having the most check-ins for any given location, or earn specific “Badges” by logging in from a given combination of places.

Fun! But how does it apply to businesses? Take Gap for instance. Last year, it launched a notorious Foursquare campaign where anyone who checked in at one of their locations received 25% off their purchase. Other large-scale corporations have followed suit — even offering additional discounts for holding mayoral status. 

However, this doesn’t exactly transfer to small or mid-sized enterprises that lack access to national advertising channels and the programming resources to seamlessly integrate these types of services into their operations. Foursquare boasts that it is universally applicable for small businesses, including hotels, but like most of the contemporary social media tools, if you don’t plan ahead and know their customers, then you might as well not even try. 

First, there are not enough people who understand Foursquare, let alone use it on a regular basis. Foursquare’s growth statistic is a tad bloated, as it encapsulates users who have made an account to try the novel software and have since lost interest. Metrics for Foursquare’s second full year on the market should be more realistic in this regard, but the fact remains that the service still primarily caters to a young, tech-savvy demographic. The boomer and mature populations are still catching on to the likes of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and it’s likely that they won’t be “checking in” for the next few years. Moreover, at its present juncture, Foursquare is an urban craze, with only the big metropolises sharing the excitement. It’s still too early to decide whether this is the bee’s knees or just another Internet dud.

That being said, there are some definitive Foursquare strategies for small enterprises within certain industries, especially if they are trying to reach out to a younger crowd. With many users forwarding their check-ins to Twitter or Facebook, it’s an excellent way to garnish some free press across several networks. Usage can also be encouraged by placing a notice in the window or leaving a “Please check in on Foursquare” marker by the entrance. 

Hotels are already a place where you check in, so by extension, Foursquare could serve as an “online concierge” in some form or another. Gourmands have already largely gained from FourSquare’s recent deals with third parties like the New York Times and Zagat to better promote their shops. The developers behind this location-based network appear to have a long-term plan for aiding their users and subscribing businesses alike.

So do you get on board or not? It’s one thing to register your company on Foursquare; it’s another entirely to maintain it and exploit it as a promotion vehicle. Judging its practicality on this level, most evidence points to no.  our time spent on this niche service would be better allocated to the bigger, content-oriented networks like Facebook, Twitter and your blog. In addition, Foursquare may soon feel the full wrath of Zuckerberg as Facebook Places stretches its popularity.  Even with its cool factor, Foursquare is at a severe disadvantage when compared to the sheer vastness of the network that Facebook Places already has to build upon.

In a broader sense, what’s important here is to be a forward thinker and to be receptive to the ever-changing world of cyberspace. Just look at the rise of Facebook; it’s only in its eighth year. Foursquare turned four March 11, 2012, and who can really say how fast it will grow? One thing is for certain: Emerging social networks favor first movers. That is, if you are planning to commit to Foursquare, do it sooner rather than later, and give it 100%. Whether it stands the test of time or not, Foursquare is still going strong in 2012.