Engaging With Customers (and Other Booksellers) on Foursquare

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With social media platforms multiplying at tribble rate, the question of where booksellers should devote their time and energy in social media efforts becomes even more important. With its New York Times write-ups and positive mentions in Mashable, Foursquare appears to be on the rise.

Foursquare is an application for the web and mobile devices that lets registered users both find friends and update their location. In recent months, some indie booksellers have begun using the service. Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, California, plans on offering specials via Foursquare, and customer feedback has been good at New York City bookstores -- Housing Works Bookstore and Cafe, McNally Jackson Books, and WORD. In fact, Foursquare has already spawned a little friendly NYC indie bookseller competition.

After you install Foursquare on your mobile phone, the application (which can be linked with Twitter and Facebook) lets friends know your location and vice versa, and, in addition, with Foursquare you can read feedback from users about venues in the neighborhood you're in.

But Foursquare also fosters a kind of competition. Users collect points, prize "badges," and eventually, coupons, for "checking in" at various venues. The person who checks into a place most often becomes its "mayor." Foursquare now has 300,000 users in less than a year, according to Business Insider, and it just announced a deal with the cable television channel Bravo, which will offer prizes for viewers who "check in" at certain locations.

Whether Foursquare's usage explodes or not, experimenting with it does not require a lot of time or effort. (Information for businesses, including how to sign up, is here.) Patrick Brown, who until recently was the webmaster and blogger for Vroman's, decided to try it at Vroman's in Pasadena because it's "one of the few social technologies to encourage visits to bricks-and-mortar businesses." The bookstore's work-in-progress plan is to give a discount to the “mayor,” as well as for those visiting for the 10th and 20th time.

The deciding factor for any new social media platform is usually critical mass. With Foursquare, which posts a business address, phone number, Google map location, and other information, Brown said he started seeing more and more people using it with Twitter and "considering the benefits it bestows on physical businesses, it seemed like a great thing to try." He was also encouraged that users would be motivated by the gaming aspect of Foursquare. "It just seems like a lot of fun," he said. "If a new service doesn't make me want to try it, I'll probably pass."

Foursquare capitalizes on something customers already do, which is to visit the store, and it encourages them to do visit more often. "It's all about where you've been and where you like to hang out," Brown said. "We think it has the potential to give an advantage to businesses with physical locations, especially those who offer a friendly, inviting atmosphere."

While Foursquare encourages regulars to stop by, it also directs new customers to check in. All these new browsers are Vroman's customers in the making, said Brown. "We're pretty confident that once people have visited our store and seen what we're about firsthand, they'll be back. Foursquare is a great way to reach out to people who are in our neighborhood already but who maybe haven't tried us for whatever reason. It's also a great way to reward customers who come back again and again."

At Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in Manhattan, Rachel Fershleiser, director of events, said that once the store Twitter address was included in its information on Foursquare, the number of check-ins increased, since Foursquare "is basically a subset of Twitter." Housing Works doesn't yet offer discounts or prizes for those who check-in often, but was considering offering a free cookies or coffee from their cafe.

Fershleiser views Foursquare as providing the best kind of promotion -- to friends by friends. "I think it's most useful in as much as it appears as endorsement. People are broadcasting to all of their friends that they hang out here. In that sense it's very good for us. And we try to be that great place to hang out, that 'third place.' We've got tons of events, wine and beer, great entertainment. Anything that perpetuates the idea that we're that great venue that you want to tell all of your friends about is fantastic for us."

Plus, Fershleiser said success on Foursquare comes with some bragging rights for Housing Works, which, she said, is simultaneously waging a Twitter war with Manhattan's McNally Jackson Books and Brooklyn's WORD. "Let the record show, we have many, many more check-ins that McNally Jackson and WORD," she said, throwing down the gauntlet. "It's on."

The rebuttal from WORD was swift. "Ha! What a troublemaker she is," said manager Stephanie Anderson.

WORD will announce in its February newsletter that its current Foursquare "mayor" will receive a 10 percent discount off purchases as long as they show store staff that they are checked in. For clarification purposes Anderson noted to BTW, "And you can tell Ms. Rachel that this was our plan before her gauntlet!"

In addition to the announcement in the newsletter, WORD will market Foursquare with in-store signage, among other efforts. The bookstore hasn't experimented further with the app, but Anderson said she has noticed both an uptick in check-ins, and a similar up tick in friends using it. WORD plans to stay engaged with Foursquare "as long as our customers are using it," said Anderson, who has downloaded the app to her phone.

Dustin Kurtz, events coordinator at McNally Jackson Books, said the bookstore was considering giving discounts to Foursquare users. He also offered some commentary regarding Housing Works outpacing McNally Jackson on Foursquare. "It's true that Housing Works has had more total check-ins," he acknowledged. "The reasons for that are pretty simple. First, a large part of our customer base is international tourists, and they tend to use Foursquare much less. Also, customers have set up separate 'places' for our cafe and bookstore on Foursquare, further lessening our apparent numbers."

Kurtz also joked that Housing Works "has a room in the basement full of volunteers whose entire job is simply to sign into Foursquare again and again." He also took aim at Housing Works' current mayor. "He's a sometimes-nude model and rabbit jerky salesman at the greenmarket up on 47th street. His real name is Christoph. If you ever speak to him you'll see that he still has a haunted look in his eyes from his time spent in the Housing Works Foursquare room. Poor guy." --Karen Schechner