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Foursquare, Gamification, and User Behavior: Leading a Social Network Double-Life

I recently edged out an incumbent to become mayor. No, Boston mayor Thomas Menino still has his job. I couldn’t hope to match his public speaking presence. The mayorship I’ve attained is not democratically determined, but rather on Foursquare. I’m now the Foursquare mayor of Communispace.

My personal mayoral accomplishment is significant in its own right, but Foursquare’s 10 million+ users are causing brand marketers and market researchers to take notice. A growing number of those in the marketing community are looking to location-based services as a means to track observed behavior in consumers. Foursquare themselves created a blogpost during Oscar season mapping out movie-goer activity during various premieres, segmenting by gender and geography. In theory, the “check-in” could be a more powerful measure than any page view, click through, or “like” because it denotes real-world behavior and action.

Some may be asking why anybody would be motivated to regularly use Foursquare in this age of Facebook and Twitter. After all, one would think we share enough boring information on our every movement via Twitter, and Facebook has its own check-in feature. In order to build a community of social network users, there has to be an attractive incentive. Commenting is “so 2010,” and a social network needs to offer more. Facebook continues to allow users to share ubiquitously with those they know. Twitter allows users to quickly share thoughts and follow a slew of celebrities (and many quasi-celebrities!). Two unique aspects of Foursquare that have kept me and many others coming back on a daily basis, and market researchers should know that both may cause issues with the authenticity of observed behavior on Foursquare:

Local discounts and rewards
Foursquare embraced businesses early on. Businesses, both national and local, can register on Foursquare and offer specials for Foursquare users. Usually these specials revolve around getting a discount or freebie for showing that you checked in on your phone, or a special reward for the mayor of the location (hint hint, Communispace). Users can pull up a list of businesses offering specials nearby through the Foursquare app.

Foursquare turned a vanity social networking feature into an achievement-focused competitive sport. The battle for mayor titles at establishments can get fierce, with some repeatedly checking into locations each day to steal the title. A point system exists for check-ins to compare against friends, where more points are given for exploring new and varied locations. Finally, my personal favorite are badges. For meeting certain criteria, badges are awarded. For instance, check into 5 different airports? You earn the “JetSetter” badge. Brands have gotten involved as well. Check into a gym, tanning salon, and landromat in one day? You earn the MTV “GTL” badge (watch Jersey Shore if you don’t understand the reference).

An incentive to cheat
Foursquare has more comparatively active incentives than many other social networks, and it keeps users regularly coming in. However, when these incentives are mixed in, how does it affect our behavior? I’ll use myself as a case study.

Badges are fun little checkmarks to show yourself how much you accomplish over time. However, some are impossible for me to get. Will I ever legitimately earn that GTL badge? Highly doubtful. Sometimes, I, and others, game the system. For instance, a “Super Mayor” badge is earned by holding down 10 simultaneous mayorships. This is absurdly difficult to earn in a crowded city. For context, it was over 80 days of checking in each day for work before I accidentally found myself with the Communispace mayorship. I earned the “Super Mayor” in a week by targeting low-competition locations that were in range of my smartphone GPS. I’m now the proud mayor of:

  • A nail salon
  • The Department of Motor Vehicles
  • A baby clothes store
  • A carpet and tile warehouse
  • An Armenian Church (don’t worry Mom, I still showed up for Rosh Hashanah services at temple)
  • Other various locations I’ve never set foot in

Before you judge me (please don’t judge me) ask how many others on social networks are like me. With the incentives offered by Foursquare, there’s ample reason to live a social network double-life. If a business offers a free lunch after 3 check-ins, it’s easy for somebody to check in twice without actually patronizing the business so they can collect on a third time. If you’re a badge collector like myself, you may alter your behavior to earn a badge or stretch the truth a bit to earn that impossible-to-earn one.

As more social networks spill more into the real world through events and business tie-ins, it’ll continue to be interesting to watch the incentives offered to expand their reach and influence. More interesting is how these incentives will motivate users to act.

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