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It amazes me sometimes when I realize all the things I don’t know. Seriously. Okay, a more appropriate and more humble way of saying this would be to state that, “I’m amazed at my age how dumb I am.” But I take comfort in the fact that I’m not alone.

I referenced a concept in one of my initial blog posts that I like to think I invented. “Cloudbursts” are marketing campaigns or events that incent social networks to do business at a retailer’s physical outlet. The purpose of a cloudburst is to further strengthen the relationship between a business and its customers. In prior posts I suggested ways that this could be done. And now I’ve found a tool to make it happen—foursquare.com.

According to their website, foursquare was launched at South by Southwest in 2009. By the end of September, 2011 they had more than 10 million people registered in their community and using their services. Ouch. It hurts knowing there were that many people who knew about foursquare before me and were smarter than me.
foursquare’s goal is to “…help you explore the world around you. Meet up with friends, discover new places, and save money using your phone.” In short, they provide the perfect tool to make cloudbursts a reality for any business.

foursquare Basics

Before taking advantage of foursquare’s capabilities, businesses must first “claim their venue” on foursquare’s website. They do this by entering basic reference information about their location. Potential customers must also register on foursquare and enable their mobile devices to be recognized by foursquare to enable its geo-location service. Once registered, subscribers have access to all businesses participating on foursquare—and there are a lot!

A new feature being rolled out soon, Radar, will make it even more important for businesses to set up their venues on foursquare. It uses foursquare’s Explore feature and can suggest other venues nearby and reportedly even tell you when your friends are meeting nearby.

Businesses leverage foursquare by offering specials to customers who are subscribers. Customers see what specials are being offered when they are within a business-defined range of the location. They take advantage of the special by “checking in” at the business when they arrive. Specials can be simple coupons for a discount during their visit or more complex incentives based on the number of foursquare subscribers who have checked in.

When driving through a business park at lunch, I found a lunch special awarding a larger discount when three or more subscribers were checked in at the establishment. It didn’t matter if the subscribers were eating together or coincidentally there at the same time.

Foursquare also provides incentives to subscribers for frequent check-ins. Businesses and even brands can award special badges for frequent participation. Adding to the features found on foursquare is the ability for any participant, business or subscriber, to log tips to help the customer enjoy their visit to the business even more. Have you always wondered how your co-workers were able to order secret menu items at your lunch spot? Check the tips associated with a venue for information on accessing its secret menu.

Using foursquare for CloudBursts

CloudBursts aim to attract large social networks to visit a business together. The more members of the community attending the event earns larger discounts. Foursquare facilitates cloudbursts by precisely allowing each member to check in when they arrive at the business to trigger the discount.

Not that anyone at foursquare has to listen to me, but an enhancement I would like to see is the ability to register specific social communities to enable cloudbusts. This would be a great incentive for businesses to register and claim their venue. Rather than wait for customers to come to them, businesses could proactively mine the foursquare community for groups in their area and reach out to them offering special discounts.

Even better, a foursquare partnership with Meetup.com users would benefit business subscribers as they would have access to a large group of already-defined social communities from which to invite to their venues. Note that the foursquare website has the Meetup.com icon on its page, but I wasn’t able to identify a specific feature integrating features of the two organizations. It certainly seems like a logical partnership to me.

Bringing foursquare to the Cloud

From my perspective, foursquare by itself is more of a mobile app than a cloud app. It’s obviously hosted in the cloud but the value is associated with tracking the subscriber’s interaction on a mobile device.

Developers can utilize the foursquare API that associates foursquare interactions with features in the developer’s app. foursquare’s value grows when integrating its data to a business’ loyalty program or other marketing app that tracks customer activities at its venues. Associating the customer’s purchase amount to the foursquare interaction would start building a history of the customer and their value to the business from foursquare data. It would also identify the value of foursquare to the business’ marketing activities. This data should be regularly compared to other marketing channels to identify the most cost effective channels.

In my own business, I’ve recently seen a much greater interest in mobile apps specifically built for small business clients. Requirements for the apps include the need for geo-location services. In addition to the services built into the phone (both Andoid and iPhone), we’re analyzing the foursquare API to determine how we can integrate foursquare functionality into the app as a basic feature. To me, doing that is a no-brainer. It automatically opens the app and its users to a fully-featured foursquare ecosystem.

The basic requirements for any mobile app we develop for small businesses, especially pubs and restaurants, include the display of business name, address, phone number, hours of operation and directions integrated with the phone’s location-based service. We’ll now add foursquare as a sixth requirement so promotional specials can be pushed to anyone using the app.

foursquare Competitors

Although they may have been one of the early entrants in the geo-location services market for businesses, they are not alone. Several newcomers have arrived, not the least of which are Google and Facebook. Both are heavily integrating location-based services to their toolbox.

Google Places lets you check-in to a business location on your phone using the Android app. There will undoubtedly be some foursquare-like features being rolled out to Google Places since it has the entire spectrum of local marketing—internet search, mobile apps, mobile devices, etc. Facebook recently killed its “Places” feature but still utilizes its “Deals” feature. Facebook’s “Deals” are targeted more widely than foursquare’s approach. But several stories I found while researching this blog post indicate that foursquare and Facebook may be teaming up soon.

Are there other social networks you’re using in your cloud-based services or mobile apps? If you’re using social media in your apps, I’d like to talk to you and discuss your approach and any success or lessons learned.

Whether or not I invented cloudbursts or was just someone who coined a new term for a marketing activity, I like how small businesses have begun to embrace social media and integrate it and the cloud into their marketing efforts. Before now, clients typically didn’t know why they needed to use social media other than the fact that “everyone else is doing it.” But cloud-based services make it easy for them to sign up for a new service without adding staff or spending a lot. Foursquare makes it even easier.

While I may not have invented the concept, I like to think that great minds think alike.

Larry GloverLarry Glover
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Although he doesn’t feel that “experienced,” Larry started working in the IT industry when it was cool to code IBM Assembler and NEAT/3 on punch cards and “cloud computing” meant the night shift was smoking something in the data center. Now as a consultant, he’s focused on building actionable IT strategies and delivering new technology to organizations large and small. He’s also an enthusiastic evangelist of the opportunities cloud computing brings to all organizations around the world.

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