Foursquare fights back

Just after Gowalla started getting some nice press for their campaign activity, Foursquare fought back by acquiescing to Jordan Raynor’s suggestion and creating an “I Voted” Badge.   Foursquare is also hosting an “I Voted” website, which will track polling place check-ins nationwide.

As Foursquare looks to cement their lead in the location-based network game, it’s a wise move to become involved in politics.  But there’s a danger in entering the political space to “encourage civic participation”; Generic get-out-the-vote efforts simply can’t match the passion of a hotly contested election.  A non partisan GOTV worker might knock on your door and encourage you to get to the polls by citing the need for participation to support Democracy; a partisan GOTV effort will tell you why the world might just end if you stay home and let evil win.  Which is more likely to encourage action?

By engaging with campaigns, Gowalla’s political strategy fuels the more effective of these two methods and encourages market expansion.  The “I Voted” concept is a good start, but Foursquare will have to continue to expand and integrate with individual campaigns to continue its dominance of the location-based social network market.

Better yard signs? We have the technology

Supporters love yard signs.  Not only is it an easy way to demonstrate support for a candidate, it also offers an unofficial measure of how a campaign is doing.  Driving through a neighborhood amid an ocean of your favored candidate’s name is a big morale builder.

Political activists hate yard signs.  They’re expensive, and a volunteer sticking a signpost in the ground is generally not a volunteer walking through a precinct and talking to his or her friends and neighbors.  To that point, Alex Lundry has a great post about the utility of location-based apps, and mentions how campaigns may be able to use location-based services to give their yard signs greater impact.

A Spanish company, whimsically called Macanudos, is going one better.  They’re working on creating a quick-response (QR) code technology that would allow users to scan images and instantly “like” something.  These QR codes would operate like bar codes, and if they’re on a lawn sign, someone walking down the street could immediately like a candidate with a smartphone.

Of course, Facebook followers are like lawn signs: they both provide a nice stat that is, without further action, ultimately meaningless.  But what happens if we mash up Lundry’s idea for incorporating location-based services with Macanudo’s ability to instantly scan-like something?  Campaigns might then be able to figure out roughly where the scan-likes were coming from and give the list to the appropriate precinct captains, who could then in turn follow up with the individual voter.

Creepy?  Maybe a little.  But hey, you wanted yard signs…

Location based social networks and the 2010 campaign

As discussed previously, no one is quite sure what to make of location-based networks yet – to the point where Christopher Walling of Project Virginia makes a compelling case that such technology won’t be impactful until at least 2012:

Not only are campaigns unable to reach a significant amount of voters, but I also don’t see using an LBSN [location-based social network] to disclose your candidate’s location as an overly effective tactic.  Most of the venues that candidates will “check-in” at are campaign events or fundraisers, which most would expect them to attend anyway.  If candidates choose to “check-in” at more “off-the-radar” locations, then they are essentially giving political trackers and their opponents an upper-hand, (don’t forget this is the year of the tracker) which could lead to more unsavory “gotcha” moments.

Not only is Walling right on about the time frame, he’s also right on about the concept of candidates checking in being kind of dumb – thought not because of the army of interns on both sides with flip video cameras and attitude problems.

Social networks involve two-way communication rather than one-way broadcast communication.  That’s why good online strategists look for opportunities to engage with supporters, rather than simply building giant email lists.  The bottom line is that few voters give a crap where a candidate is.

On the other hand, an activist may want everyone to know that he or she just checked into Campaign HQ to stuff envelopes for three hours; or they may want to know where polling places are.  If they have three hours to kill on a weekend, they may want to know if there’s a neighborhood nearby where no one has gotten around to knocking on doors.

In other words,it isn’t important for the candidate to be active for a campaign to get a lot out of a location-based social network; but as Walling mentions early on in his post, the supporters sure have to be.

I dreamed a dream of Foursquare

This may be a sign I’m working too hard, but that isn’t a funny title – I actually had a dream about a client using Foursquare last week.

The client, a national non-profit, had partnered with several Foursquare-friendly businesses throughout the holiday shopping season.  If you checked in at a location nearby, the business would alert you that a certain purchase would result in a donation to the non-profit.  For instance, if you checked into a restaurant, and there was a Starbucks nearby, you might receive a message that buying a grande gingerbread latte would net a $1 donation.

When I told them, they liked the idea – but were a little disturbed that I was dreaming about work.  But as other non-profits are finding out, Foursquare can be a useful tool for connecting with supporters.

Foursquare of July

Like Mindy Finn of Engage and others, I’ve been trying to figure out Foursquare – not necessarily because I like it, but because it’s my job to know how it works, and how it can be applied.

Vincent Harris of TechRepublican has some good ideas about it, and businesses like Whole Foods have gotten on the bandwagon by asking users to check in.  Some offer discounts for check ins or mayorships.

Yesterday, I was chatting with a small business owner and soon-to-be restaurateur  about ways he could use it for his business.  He wasn’t sold on its utility.  When I checked in at Nationals Park to watch the Washington One-Man Show, a Facebook friend made fun of me for playing “that stalker game.”

It seems like many just aren’t quite sure what to make of Foursquare yet, which is reminiscent of another social media/network craze from a few years ago: Twitter.  When Twitter first hit, it instructed users to tell everyone what they were doing – making it sound like a glorified Facebook status update.  When people started understanding the ability to communicate in public conversations with 140 characters – and the concept of microblogging – Twitter became more than its founders probably imagined it would.

As Foursquare becomes more prevalent, more businesses, organizations, and campaigns will start to take advantage of the ability for people to check in electronically from their phone, and the utility will become more obvious.  Until then, here’s a very telling metric that indicates this isn’t a passing fad: Foursquare’s current value is $95 million, and they’re planning to expand.

Location, location, location

The 2012 Presidential race is still a couple years away, but the early contenders are already beefing up their online efforts.  That makes it a good time to start asking what the 2012 online campaigns will look like.  The National Wildlife Federation is doing some cool things with location-based technology, and the contenders to the Oval Office would be wise to take notice.

Between social networks based on where you’re at (Foursquare, Gowalla) and the GPS-enabled smartphones that make these applications portable, location data will be important eventually to the campaign that invests the intellectual resources in it.

E-commerce dawned in the late 1990s, and in 2000 John McCain became the first candidate to raise significant amounts of money online.  In 2004, the internet offered a way to link people with common interests; the Howard Dean campaign (and later the Bush Campaign) responded with programs that helped activists find each other and organize local events.  In 2008, MySpace and Facebook allowed people to easily share content with friends; the Obama campaign’s online efforts were based around that same concept of virality. Successful campaigns change to reflect internet trends.

A campaign might use any number of location-based tactics.  Activists could be alerted to events in their area.  A campaign could offer contests for volunteers using Foursquare to check in at  headquarters or to recruit friends to attend rallies and other activities (not the least of which is voting).  Advocates could request campaign materials (like lawn signs) or instantly share stories through smart phone applications.

There’s no guarantee that the first campaign to take advantage of this technology will win, of course – McCain, Dean, and more recently Ron Paul  all proved that success online doesn’t always translate to the ballot box.  But for those looking for emerging technologies to gain an advantage, this is one place to be.

(Get it?  Place to be?  Location?  Aw, shut up.)

Playing “What If”: A political privacy scandal

Successes of the past five or six years have made online grassroots outreach an absolute necessity for any serious campaign for major office.  And every day, the possibilities for online activism multiply in seemingly exponential rates.  The art of the online possible has grown from a framed wall painting into the Sistine Chapel, and the smart campaigns kept up.

Sadly, that’s probably where the problems will come from.

Consider mashups like Checkin Mania – a site that merges information various location-based networks and Google Maps.   Sites which merge data from various sources are popular with users because they can consolidate information – in this case, it helps you find your friends,  even if one is using Gowalla and another is using Foursquare.  The next “revolutionary” campaign will likely have components like this; when you sign up for Obama/Biden 2012 (or Pawlenty 2012, or Romney 2012, or Zombie Reagan 2012) you would have the ability to link other services as well.  In fact, you might even be able to sign up with Facebook Connect, immediately linking your Facebook profile and all other information that you reveal somewhat publicly.

Now, here’s where the what-ifs get interesting.

This means there will be lots of information flowing around not only the campaign site, but to and from several interconnected sites.  Leaks and mistakes are inevitable, and not from hackers – from random items being posted to networks the user did not intend to post them to.  It may mean embarrassing Facebook pictures being shared on the campaign site; it may means your meeting at the bondage club gets tweeted to your Twitter following.

Sound too far-fetched?  Facebook gets knocked for privacy violations every few months – most recently for an information-sharing in their privacy policyGoogle  Buzz was famously lazy about privacy considerations in its rollout.  And they optimize user experiences in social networks for a living, that’s how they earn their food money.

These mistakes come from innovation – designers trying to come up with ways to make the sites and services they offer easier.  Campaign tech teams worth their salt do the same – the lower the barrier to entry, the more supporters you can attract.

When you have a political team that – like Facebook’s development group – gets starry-eyed while looking at the art of the possible, some details on that fresco are bound to be missed.  When they are, the opposing campaign will be ready to pounce.

This isn’t to say campaigns should stop innovating.  But the “what if” game is an important part of innovating in the high stakes environment of political campaigns.  Privacy is becoming an ever more important issue on the web.  If companies like Google and Facebook have to be ready for these concerns, campaigns must be ready as well.