Social Networking Nudge

Some colleges think they can increase students' engagement with Foursquare, a popular location-based site. Are they right?

July 29, 2011
Colleges are on social media, regardless of whether they have figured out what it is worth to maintain an institutional presence there. A recent survey by the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth found that 98 percent of higher ed institutions are on Facebook, and 84 percent are on Twitter. Those numbers have risen dramatically in the past few years, college recruiters, fund-raisers, and marketers having bought into the value — much of it speculative — of keeping active in those communities.

Foursquare, the most popular of a new class of "geo-social" websites, is included on this year’s iteration of the UMass-Dartmouth study almost as an afterthought. Only 20 percent of campuses have an institutional presence on Foursquare. But those that are using it believe the two-year-old Foursquare could soon emerge as a more powerful — and tangible — tool for engaging with students.

College officials can tell students about events and meetings and resource centers with Facebook or Twitter. With Foursquare, they can actually get students to go to them.

“Students can get to know us through sitting on Facebook or on our website,” says Diane McDonald, director of social media and marketing at Texas A&M University, one of Foursquare’s early champions. “But Foursquare actually encourages them to get away from the computer into the real campus and explore it.”

Foursquare uses the geo-locator technology built into smartphones to turn exploring physical places — like, say, a college campus and the surrounding town — into a virtual game by encouraging users to “check in” virtually at places they visit in real life. They can leave virtual notes, or “tips,” about a place for future visitors, a la Yelp.

Users also compete for “badges” and honorary titles based on where they check in and how frequently; for example, if a person checks in at a local café more frequently than anyone else, she is crowned “mayor” of that café. (Foursquare confirms someone's presence through the phone’s geo-locator.) Businesses sometimes play along by offering free perks for customers who check in frequently. Promotions of this kind are expected to form the foundation of Foursquare’s business plan, which is still taking shape.

Colleges are not coffee shops, of course. “We can’t really offer specials,” says Liz Gross, director of university marketing and communications at the University of Wisconsin at Waukesha. “You can’t say ‘10 percent off tuition for checking in,’ or ‘free tuition for the mayor.’ ”

But colleges can still nudge students using incentives. In the spring, Texas A&M held a Foursquare scavenger hunt, giving students a sequence of clues for places on campus to check in. The reward? A 30-percent discount at the campus bookstore.

At Waukesha, Gross says she has entertained the idea of using Foursquare to encourage student involvement in extracurricular activities while at the same time strengthening ties with local businesses. “Maybe if a student checks in at the association for student activities office, then they could be eligible for a discount or coupon for a local [store or restaurant],” says Gross. Studies have shown the positive effects of engagement with campus life on student retention and success, she says. “At its core,” she says, “Foursquare allows you to tap in to student engagement.”

McDonald agrees. “I think there are a lot of opportunities to incentivize certain behaviors on campus, and reward those behaviors,” says McDonald. Create incentives to visit the library frequently, and students might study more. Give them a financial incentive to explore the campus, and they might stumble upon something they would not have otherwise.

But it might be easy to overstate the force behind a Foursquare nudge. First of all, it assumes that students are paying attention — which is far from a guarantee.

“I think it’s a niche play, still,” says Hanson Hosein, who directs a master’s program in digital media at the University of Washington. “I don’t see it getting the kind of critical mass that Facebook has gotten, or even Twitter. The only way this is going to work is if universities can push students on this platform a bit.”

If they cannot, colleges would have to weigh the cost in time and effort they spend formulating challenges, promoting deals, and building an infrastructure on Foursquare against how much the institution, and its students, stands to benefit. "At Texas A&M, a staff member usually spends three to four hours a week monitoring and updating Foursquare," reads a Foursquare primer released in March by the Education Advisory Board. "Other events such as the scavenger hunt, required several full days of effort from the social media team, the business development team, and students." The report also cautions that "If students are not already active on Foursquare, it will be challenging for student affairs staff to generate buy-in for a new social media tool."

Anthony Rotolo, an assistant professor in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University, says an institution might use Foursquare to study patterns in where students congregate on campus, and when. Syracuse, for its part, want to use Foursquare to find out where in different cities their alums are gathering to watch Syracuse basketball games, Rotolo says, then target those sites as possible partners for fundraising. But any such research opportunities would be weakened if not enough students or alums end up using Foursquare. Like most social media, Rotolo says, gauging return-on-investment in Foursquare is still an imperfect science.

But whether or not Foursquare will become strategically important to colleges, colleges are already a key part of Foursquare's growth strategy. The company, which has 10 million users worldwide, took aim at college campuses earlier this year with its “college badge program,” which lets colleges offer virtual rewards to students for checking in at certain places. For example, students who check in at a campus library after midnight can earn a “bookworm bender” badge. Some colleges have begun building their own branded badges. For example, Syracuse will soon offer a “Syracuse 44" badge to users who check in at a certain set of campus venues. Several campus officials talked about the possibility of allowing students to redeem badges for campus bucks — just like a café might offer free coffee to its virtual “mayor.”

Yet it remains to be seen whether students will care about badges, or “tips,” or Foursquare in general. Discounts and prizes might not sway students toward events and activities they would not attend anyway. Rewarding students who check in at a library late on a Saturday night might be a boon for those already holed up in the stacks, but it might not be enough to get students to forgo partying for studying.

“I don’t think it would [create behavior] from nothing, where you’re only doing something because of Foursquare,” says Tim Cigelske, a communications specialist at Marquette University. “[But] I think that maybe it reinforces it.”

Still, it is difficult to count out a tool with such potential to harness the thriftiness of college students, says Hosein. “I think that financial incentive piece is pretty big,” he says. “And it might work.”

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