Watch Your Step: How Foursquare Can Get Customers in the Door

Working in the field of public relations for nearly 30 years, I have found that although I am open to trying new things, social media is an interesting phenomenon that's both scary and intriguing at the same time. It can be a publicist's greatest asset -- or worst nightmare. Years ago, the best publicity was in the form of word-of-mouth, traditional print, and broadcast television. Fast forward to the present, publicity campaigns are integrated and sometimes even built around online strategies, leveraging ad buys in magazines to get editorial coverage (oh wait, did I just reveal a PR secret?), and oh yes... social media campaigns. Who would have thought that the brand of a company could exist on the Internet? Where you can't really feel it (remember getting ink on your fingers when you thumbed through the morning paper?).

Big businesses can afford to invest in these types of campaigns; After all, they have marketing and advertising budgets that to a small business can be rather intimidating (think a Chihuahua standing next to a Great Dane). So, what is a small business to do in this world of playing catch up? Social media certainly makes it easier to reach people, many don't consider the fact that one person on Facebook has access to the SAME 500 million users that a multi-billion dollar company does. That certainly changes the perspective a little bit, huh? So, what is a small business to do? How can social media get customers in the door but play the game smarter?

Carmine Gallo, communications coach and author of The Power of Foursquare: 7 Innovative Ways To Get Your Customers To Check In Wherever They Are (McGraw-Hill), says, "Many businesses are motivated to join social media out of fear. They're afraid of being left behind, and that's the only reason they do it. They create social media pages and promotions with no clear objective. They just do it to do it." Carmine raises a good point. If a small business wants to compete, why do it out of fear or desperation to keep up? It is as if the engine is running, but nobody is behind the wheel (pardon the pun). One way of looking at the ROI on social media is that if you don't participate, you run a really good risk of being irrelevant in five years. The other way is less of an excuse and to me the greatest incentive. There actually is a return and it is easy to measure.

Foursquare is one one tool that has received a lot of buzz. What exactly is it? Being a non-expert on the topic, I spoke with Cindy Morrison, social media strategist and founder of Socialvention, which helps companies reinvent themselves through social media campaigns that deliver solid results, such as gaining more Twitter followers, or by utilizing Foursquare to get more customers in the door.

Cindy explains, "Foursquare is a social media platform where you pinpoint your location by 'checking in' at restaurants, stores, or other attractions. You can see if friends are nearby so you can meet up and write reviews or tips about businesses." She adds, "I show my clients how to literally use it to motivate nearby potential customers with special Foursquare offers and discounts. Targeting buyers when they're already in the neighborhood is half the battle. And the fact that they get the offer right in the palm of their hand (on their smart phone)? Brilliant!"

I was slightly skeptical, and so I challenged Cindy to explain how this makes any sense. Why not just stand around in the neighborhood and hand out flyers? I asked. She replied, "While some see 'checking in' at a location on Foursquare as a silly game, it's actually a great marketing tool. You can literally motivate a potential customer who's nearby to try your product. The more they 'check-in' to locations, it helps them gain followers and fans via social media. So, everyone can win. They write about your company, you get free advertising, and they get discounts. For instance, when I recently checked in on Foursquare at the DFW airport, I was immediately offered a discount coupon to eat at a restaurant there. There was no doubt in my mind where I'd be spending time between flights."

VERY interesting. So, the very places that I frequent, there just might be a deal for me? Has social media encouraged businesses to discount products and services just to get someone to try them out? Sounds like a no-brainer!

Carmine and Cindy make some very valid and interesting points. If you are going to commit to doing something, make sure you do it right. Besides, a small business does not have the extra time or money (like the Great Dane big business does) to waste on running campaigns that in the end hurt them rather than help their bottom line. I am considering joining Foursquare; maybe I can snag some nice deals when I am in a neighborhood?

In the end, small businesses are not as at much a disadvantage as many have thought. With a little determination and the willingness to try something new (trial by error doesn't hurt so much), small businesses have an opportunity available to them that they never had before. The ability to connect directly with their target customer is taking on a whole new meaning these days. Not only is social media a free marketing (and promotional tool), it can be extremely useful if used appropriately and not in haste.

And just maybe, we are not in a social media bubble as many seem to be pondering now; There is so much for us to delve into and discover. Keeping up with trends is not just a cliché statement anymore. Certainly, there are a few tricks that this old dog (me) can learn. So, to you small business owners out there (and big businesses -- I didn't forget about you!), watch your step, the customer is walking through the door and about to deliver something to you. Just make sure you get them wanting to come back!