Does it really mean anything to be a Foursquare Mayor?

I currently hold 6 mayorships on Foursquare. I wouldn’t consider myself a super user but I have a large friend network so this isn’t too bad considering. It’s fun to walk into a place that you frequent and then receive a unique offer simply because they want to give you a little something extra. In New Orleans, a place I called home for 5 years, they have a saying for this called lagniappe. A French Creole word used almost exclusively in Louisiana that means “a little something extra.” This may come in the form of something you receive at the time of purchase, like the extra donut in a bakers dozen, or even a compliment, something for good measure.

In Foursquare, lagniappe is typically extended at the time of purchase. At Starbucks this means $1 off a Frappuccino, while Pizza Hut rewards mayors with free breadsticks. This is different than rewards you earn for checking-in. In Manhattan many of the bars and restaurants on Third Avenue reward users with a free draft beer the first time they check-in, while mayors receive 15% off their tab. There is a clear distinction between a reward you receive for checking-in and a reward you receive for achieving mayor status. Greater rewards are extended to mayors as these are the people who return most frequently – the regulars.

Foursquare, in their 3.0 release a few months ago, created a “Specials” section in the main nav where users can search nearby destinations based on whether or not they offer rewards for check-ins or for mayors. This update came in response to critics who said brands had no way to clearly monetize the LBS and “Specials” is a feature loyalty programs can be built upon. Clearly this is something that Foursquare wants to emphasize and it’s not surprising that so many brands want to participate. It’s really a win-win situation for both user and brand if executed properly. The user receives a tangible reward for their loyalty (lagniappe) and the brand receives ongoing customer loyalty and social props that will probably come in the form of evangelism on the social web.

This all sounds good in theory, but unfortunately in reality, it’s not so simple. I was at BLT Fish in Manhattan just last Friday. I have held onto the mayor title for the last 6 weeks and I’ve been anxious to redeem my reward, which is pretty generous – a free lobster roll. I shared my excitement with Twitter and I even got a couple of responses from @BLTFish as you can see below.

I went Friday night at around 6:00 before any real dinner rush had formed. I beelined it to the bar for a few drinks and to show the bartender my mayor status as instructed by Foursquare.

After a few drinks I sat down to order and then showed the server my phone before he put the order in.  The server, who was clearly channeling Todd from Wedding Crashers and probably shouldn’t have been in the service industry to begin with says, “Ohhhh yeahhh I’m like so sorrrry, this is like only good at like the barrrr.”   His insincerity and cloying tone immediately prompted me to ask for the manager who then told me the same thing. Knowing this was wrong, I referred to the above tweet and offered the phone up, twitter message clearly displayed, for validation.  The manager said he would check with corporate before shuffling off.  Unfortunately he never returned.

I guess I was most disappointed with the fact that the manager never came back to apologize, or even to inform me the roll wouldn’t be on my tab. My server also disappeared and sent 3 other people to bring out my food and drink. Good or even decent customer service would dictate an apology or at least an explanation, especially considering the whole reason I hold the mayorship in the first place – I’m a regular. I go there, I check-in, I spend money.

My point is this, if you are going to run a Special on Foursquare then all the details need to be communicated from the top down. Starbucks uses a “Need to Know” sheet that is posted next to the cash register. This includes detailed information on Foursquare promotions and rewards, as well as the promotional code the server should be using when tabulating the bill in the system.

Many brands that run Specials fail to do this and it is an unfortunate, albeit common problem. The main objective, when offering a Foursquare Special, is to promote positive experiences and increased loyalty.  So when the mayor, or whoever else is checking-in  receives their reward, they will then evangelize their experience on the social web and via word of mouth.

Even though BLT Fish begrudgingly honored my mayorship, I am left with a bad taste in mouth – the fish was good but the service and overall experience were terrible. The question I posed to the Twitterati is this: “Is my one measly lobster roll really worth losing me as a customer and even more importantly, the negative sentiment that will be amplified throughout my social network?”

Sadder still is how some words are lost in translation across a thousand mile divide. The only lagniappe I received was a headache followed by a stomachache. That’s a little something extra I would have cared to avoid.

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The Future of Foursquare…

Foursquare founder, Dennis Crowley, spoke on this topic at yesterday’s ad:tech conference in New York. Anyone who follows Mashable or the other social media news hubs has already seen this story trending, but the point is, this is a critical time for the future of Foursquare. The whole craze surrounding badges and checkins is coming to an end. The excitement, enthusiasm and momentum that has been building since Foursquare’s breakout at SXSW two years ago has reached its apex and has now started its decline. Unless Foursquare solves the looming question of, “WHAT NOW,” they are going to follow in the footsteps of so many other sophomore  startups that have failed after their 2nd year. According to Dennis their main focal point is – what happens after the checkin – but do they have a practical solution in sight? As the enthusiasm around earning badges and becoming a mayor dwindles, the checkin process starts to become tedious and unnecessary. Automatic checkins are too 1984 and Dennis admits that until GPS improves and phones get better batteries, this just isn’t feasible anyway.

So again we are back to “WHAT NOW?” Foursquare says its all about surfacing user- generated content but if people aren’t checking-in to Foursquare, all the UGC in the world can be surfaced and no one would be the wiser. That said; why not find a way to renew the checkin momentum each month? If there were a way to create an enthusiasm and buzz around checking in, just like the hype built during SXSW and for the better part of a year and a half, wouldn’t it be invaluable to Foursquare’s business to capture that?

Well, there is a way to do that and it’s easier than you might think. Right now mayorships are too far out of reach for the ordinary person. True, being a mayor is not about being an ordinary person, it’s really about being a brand enthusiast, someone who goes out of their way to show their support for the brand by showing up and checking in. For example, I go the gym every day and I am big supporter of Equinox Gyms, still I’ll never be the mayor of my location.  The reason is that I am a relatively new member. Although I do checkin every day, I just can’t compete with all the legacy users at a given location. After a while, when I have achieved the Gym Rat badge ten times over, checkins sort of becomes redundant.

But what if the slate is wiped clean? What if Foursquare sets all checkins back to zero for every location at the 1st of each month and everyone has an equal opportunity to achieve the coveted mayorship? Then, to further incentivize the checkin Foursquare would also attach real world rewards? This is in addition to rewards given out by the business you’re checking-in to.  What if for e.g. you got an actual badge and a cool t-shirt displaying your badge? Then next month when you loose your mayorship you still have a real life trophy you can take with you or wear down the street. Soon 1,000s of heavy Foursquare users are walking around in Foursquare t-shirts and you bring back the buzz and rally people around the app. Brands can sponsor events for all the past and present mayors. Individual locations can have specialized “lifetime rewards” for mayors and “The Million Badge March” can be held with its own special badges. Essentially you are creating a renewed sense of brand affinity, plus by giving people the incentive to checkin when it counts, an element of sustainability is reintroduced.

Yes, surfacing content after the checkin is a feature I’d love to see become more robust, but Foursquare was built on checkins and badges and if people loose the desire to checkin, it won’t matter how great the surfaced content is.