Foursquare for local campaigns

By Henri Makembe on 03.19.10


Geo-location…the new toy.

For those not obsessing over the latest creation on the web, geo-location apps are the new shiny toy. These apps, mostly used through your smart phone, allow users to broadcast their whereabouts around town. While this is not the first iteration of geo-location apps, they seem to have found a wider audience this time around. There are many startups trying to capitalize on this phenomenon. However, the undisputed leader is Foursquare(at least till SXSWi last week). Foursquare recently has reached 1 million users mark thus prompting online organizers and bloggers to come up with ways it can be used in the advocacy arena.

Scratching the surface.

Last week, one such blogger by the name of Amanda Phraner wrote an interesting blog post about how Foursquare can be used in the world of advocacy. In her post, she suggests that advocacy organizations could do any or all following using Foursquare:

  1. Nationwide check-in days, which would be virtual ‚Äúcall-to-action‚ÄĚ days that many organization currently organize.
  2. Devise means by which activists and organizers would earn badges as an advocate
  3. Create check-in options for advocacy activities

Expanding on Amanda’s post, Alan Rosenblatt puts forward that the effectiveness of Foursquare can be increased even further than is suggested by Amanda because the tool allows the users to update their status on both Facebook and Twitter with their action on the site.  He writes “:

It can post your check-in message and address to Twitter and Facebook. This immediately reaches out to all of your followers and friends and taps into the viral potential we all know and love.

But it can be even more effective if you include hashtags to your message for Twitter. Adding #p2 will expose your Foursquare post to hundreds of thousands of progressive activists

Digging a little deeper.

The blog posts by Alan and Amanda got me thinking about the ways local campaigns can use foursquare reach out to voters and volunteers alike during a campaign. After some thinking, I came up with the following:

Advertise support from an Establishment

During the course of local elections, many businesses display signs in support of one candidate or another. This would be something similar to that. Every time a user checks-in at an establishment, he or she would also receive a message stating informing them of the establishment’s support of a candidate. Ideally, this message would also contain relevant ways in which the user can obtain more information about the candidate. And because I care about list growth, it would be an easy way for the user to submit their cell phone number or e-mail address to the campaign. If nothing else, this idea would increase the public knowledge about an impending election.

Outreach to the connectors and the connected to co-host events

The fact of the matter is that Foursquare and any other geo-location app are used by people that tend to be connectors and are connected. Based on that, a campaign could reach out to the recent ‚Äúmayors‚ÄĚ of the supporting establishment and ask them to co-host events where they would invite their friends. The events could be as small or as large as the ‚Äúmayors‚ÄĚ network.¬† Obviously, the events would have to be person and place appropriate. For example, the campaign should not seek to host a potluck event at small coffee shop. Instead, the event should be about having coffee with the candidate and focus on on the interest of the audience.

Recognize and reward Volunteers

As many of us are well aware, volunteering on the campaign is a thankless job that leads to heartbreak the vast majority of the time. Yet, volunteers are the life and blood bottom of any campaign. If a campaign were to encourage all its volunteers to check-in at headquarters or at various campaign events, it would have been easy way to identify its most active volunteers. Having this information in hand, it would then be easy to recognize and reward these volunteers to keep up the morale. Small gestures such as having dinner with the candidate, gift cards to coffee shops, and books would go a long way to add satisfaction and fulfillment to an otherwise thankless endeavor.

It’s not all gravy.

It is unrealistic to think that most people would be excited or even open to the idea that a campaign would use Foursquare or any other geo-location tool or app to target them. Thus using these tools must be done with great care and would require a great deal of manpower, which most campaign lack.

Furthermore, some may even see it as an invasion of privacy. While some and it giants, notably¬†Mark Zuckerberg¬†of Facebook, have¬†declared privacy to be dead.¬† The average internet user would vehemently disagree with that position. While more people are sharing more information online, they still expect a certain level of privacy.¬† On the other hand, campaigns can use this information to better target voters.¬† The result is that campaigns must have a nuanced view of privacy ‚Äď use the information available to them without leaving a sour taste in the mouth of users.

Lastly, there’s always the issue of money. Building additional features such as location verification (currently Foursquare allows you to check-in anywhere in the world regardless of where you are physically) or a foursquare sign-up feature (where user to give their cell phone number to campaigns) require financing. As we all know, electoral campaigns are always strapped for cash and have minimally-funded and understaffed new media department. Therefore, such features will have to wait till the next presidential election or be funded by organizations such as DNC, DSCC or DCCC (or their counterparts on the right).

Piggy backing on innovation.

Despite the pitfalls, what we can take from foursquare and other geo-location apps is that there is room for continuous innovation. I’m sure the founders of Foursquare, Twitter or Facebook, did not envision the use of  the role their app would play in the advocacy or political arena.  As long as we remember that politics and advocacy are about connecting people to candidates and issues, there will always be a way to use the new toys to increase participation in the political process and thus there will always be new ways to improve our democracy.