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Foursquare: Lessons learned from one of the platform’s Top 10 Universities

As social media manager for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I frequently try out new platforms to see if our students are using them and if they might become useful tools for my campus. For the past 18 months, I’ve channeled my inner mayor on Foursquare, a location-based social network.

Illustration by Jeff Stevens
Illustration by Jeff Stevens

As social media manager for the University of Wisconsin-Madison (@UWMadison), I frequently try out new platforms to see if our students are using them and if they might become useful tools for my campus. For the past 18 months, I’ve channeled my inner mayor on Foursquare, a location-based social network.

(For those unfamiliar with the service, get an overview: Mashable, Scribd, FourSquare)

A bit like a northern Austin, Texas, Madison is a college town with vibrant music and social media scenes, which seem to be key ingredients for Foursquare success. When we had an opportunity to create a branded site in early 2010, we jumped at the chance.

Two semesters later, we’re among the top 10 universities nationwide (8,500 friends), and it’s been a nice addition to our mobile strategy.

Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

Campus guide

Hundreds of our campus buildings and facilities are cataloged Foursquare, along with dozens of insider tips and a whopping 67,000 check-ins. The service has essentially created a campus Wiki that encourages participants to be adventurous and explore previously unknown spaces in the community. Battles for the mayorships of some of our most popular campus venues, such as Memorial Union Terrace, have been intense.

Biggest and best

On our campus, Foursquare is far and away the most-used location-based service, towering over others like Gowalla, SCRVNGR, Loopt and even the much-heralded but poorly used (at least here) Facebook Places. The others seem to have little, if any, traction.

We particularly like the offering of general higher ed badges like “Campus Explorer” and “Quad Squatter.” On the downside, only a small handful of campuses have been offered tailored badges, which would be a powerful incentive for greater use. Who on our campus wouldn’t want the coveted (and still fictional) Badger Badge?

A piece of your puzzle

It’s useful to view Foursquare as another piece of the social media puzzle when it comes to promoting locations on campus. When I recently checked into a venue, I was pleased to see tips promoting something nearby. It fills the location services gap right now. But we’ll see if it has the staying power as it continues to evolve.

Time intensive

Our office manages more than a dozen campus accounts on multiple platforms, in addition to daily work on publicity, internal communications, web and media relations. On campus we have more than 500 accounts total. It’s tough to find the time for the care and feeding of all of those sites.

Unlike a site like Facebook, Foursquare requires much more time and effort to help set up new locations, allow access for them to be managed, encourage people to offer discounts, known as “Specials” and otherwise educate the campus population on the merits of the service. As we currently have the ability to offer few specials across campus, we’re not seeing much user engagement.  Extending the service beyond buildings to campus events has netted few check-ins.

Brands over universities

Other than creating new, potential users, there seems to be less overall potential gain for colleges compared to brands, such as MTV or Lucky.  We enjoy being affiliated with the service and its cachet. And we recognize that we’re not directly generating revenue for the platform.

But we’ve also had little interaction with Foursquare, or received ideas or documentation on promotions or contests that have been particularly useful. In addition, unlike a global brand like Starbucks or Virgin, we have much less to gain from specials and fewer opportunities to offer them.

The year the check-in died?

Despite Foursquare recently crossing over 7.5 million users, the hottest trend in social media is declaring the “check-in” era over. Our verdict: Too early to tell, but it’s telling that privacy concerns seem to be hindering growth.  As it stands, we’d continue to rank Foursquare behind Twitter, Facebook and our mobile app as the vital components to our mobile and social media strategy.

We’re also curious to hear how other universities have employed the service and might be using it more effectively than we are.

I’m hopeful we’ll have more time this summer and in the coming academic year to cultivate it and encourage its growth. Who can pass up the chance to land that Badger Badge?

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6 replies on “Foursquare: Lessons learned from one of the platform’s Top 10 Universities”

If you’re interested in talking to someone at foursquare about how universities can better use foursquare hit up Anna Frenkel (@af:twitter ) on Twitter. She’s a marketing person there who wants to talk to schools about what improvements they can make. I also happened to post a similar blog post today on our foursquare stats at West Virginia University. It might prove useful for folks interested in this service.

I’ve been studying and speaking about Foursquare and other geosocial apps for the past year or so (/delusion of self-importance), and I think you’re using it as well as any college I’ve studied. It’ a tool, as you note, that is part of your toolkit but not an end unto itself. Obviously, having a hopping town like Madison helps a lot, but the basic points transcend anywhere.

Another reason to engage in Foursquare a bit is the one I discuss every time I give a presentation on social media: Claim your name before someone else does. I set up campus locations as venues so that I could apply consistent naming formats, then claimed them as the formal owner. That lets me look at statistics other users don’t see.

I’ve added tips about locations of the library, coffee stands, bike racks, bus stops, and other elements of the campus. We don’t yet have a mobile app so I figure between this and putting a lot of information into Google Maps I’m doing at least some geo-communications.

I contacted Foursquare about the custom badge idea and never heard back. Since Washington State University has multiple campuses I’d actually like to pursue development of the “Uber-Cougar” badge, which you would earn by checking in at all four campuses, and maybe “WSU Spokane Cougar Art Fan” for check-ins at our various outdoor art installations. Those feel like fun student/alumni engagement badges.

But for now I don’t have a particular reason to try to drive use of the app so I’m not focusing any time and attention on it other than to look once in a while at check-ins to see if we should follow a student on Twitter, if they use the same handle in both the way I do personally.

Director of Communications and Public Affairs
Washington State University Spokane
@WSUSpokane (on both Twitter & 4sq)

Hi, I’m happy to help you set up an official foursquare presence for Washington State University. Would love to chat about badges and fun ways to incorporate foursquare on campus. Please email me at and we’ll get started right away!

Just a quick update to this post: Since we shared our thoughts with @Dens:twitter and @AF:twitter, they have been extremely responsive and quick to try to try to address our concerns. I really appreciate that they’re listening and willing to work with university partners. We’re excited for Year 2 with Foursquare.

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