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.

Will politics turn Gowalla vs. Foursquare into Facebook vs. MySpace?

In the world of location-based social networks, Foursquare has been the early leader, closing in on four million users.  Gowalla and SCVNGR have been battling for a distant second place.

Gowalla’s move to cut into the lead came back in August, when it released a set of tools for campaigns – tools that many campaigns have been taking advantage of.    Last week Politico’s Morning Tech followed up on the campaign toolkits:

Since the tools launched, Gowalla tells us, hundreds of political events, such as a rallies and town halls, have been created on the location-based service and thousands of people have checked into these events. And Gowalla users like to share which events they’re at on other social networks, too. About half of people who check into political events on Gowalla push out their status, comments and photos to Facebook, Twitter or both social networks.

And it sounds like interest in the politics-geared tools is growing. Gowalla says it has already started talking with both Democrats and Republicans about using its service for the 2012 elections. In Gowalla’s home state of Texas, the tools have gained traction with several candidates competing in local races.

Gowalla smart to take the long view, since location-based tools probably won’t be as prevalent until the Republican presidential primary campaigns.  But since those campaigns will start on November 3, Gowalla is equally smart to start catering to campaigns now.  At the same time, Foursquare has been somewhat deaf to calls for better political engagement, such as Jordan Raynor’s “I Voted” badge concept.

Foursquare still has a dominant market share of close to 70-80% (by the rough numbers).  But in the early days of online social networking, MySpace was similarly dominant.  The key is that the location-based market in 2010 is similar to the social network market in 2004 – it isn’t mature yet.  By most counts, the top three location-based networks boast five or six million users – or 1% of Facebook’s membership.  There are simply an awful lot of people who haven’t plunged into the location-based markets yet.

So what are the current also-rans to do to expand the location-based market – and make sure the new recruits choose something other than Foursquare?  By targeting campaigns, Gowalla is actually recruiting political activists – passionate users who will join their network (or possibly even switch from Gowalla) in the pursuit of a bigger goal.  By starting in 2010 and targeting 2012, Gowalla isn’t just executing a political strategy, but a business strategy as well.



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.

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.