How Foursquare Added 100K Users with SXSW Guerilla Tactic

Foursquare has added around 100,000 new users since Saturday, pushing its total to 500,000 and feeding more fuel to the hype machine the brand has ridden in recent months. The New York-based company’s feat was spearheaded with a synergy-minded guerilla tactic at the South-By-Southwest (SXSW) festival’s interactive conference.

An 11-person marketing team for the locations-based game – which via a smartphone app lets users identify what establishments they visit – evidently worked up a good sweat. They set up an actual game of “four square” in front of the convention hall during the Austin, TX-based event. During the five-day conference that wrapped on Tuesday, the team took turns leading the playground game for around three hours each afternoon while inviting conference attendees and other passers-by to join in.

The game drew “thousands” of walk-up participants, said Dennis Crowley, CEO of the firm. While the company co-hosted a party Monday night, Crowley said, its SXSW presence didn’t include other bells and whistles like signage or a booth in the hall. It largely hinged on “a box of chalk and two rubber balls,” he said.

“We played all day long, and there was always a waiting line,” Crowley said. “We were handing out tee shirts, buttons, and stickers. Anytime someone didn’t know what Foursquare was, we helped them find it on their phone. We helped get them up and running and using it.”

Of course, the hands-on part of the marketing stunt can only receive a bit of the attribution for his company’s huge user growth. Foursquare enjoyed considerable buzz leading up to the event, which certainly set things up nicely for a flourishing viral effect. The nature of SXSW – a multimedia spectacle best known as a showcase festival for new musical artists – also deserves some credit. It’s where Crowley announced his new company last year, and it’s reputed as a gathering place for geeks, digital media and marketing execs, and other influencers such as bloggers and social media stars.

Foursquare’s key metric is “checkins” – or how many times people use the brand’s app on their smartphone to show they’ve arrived at a physical location. The location can be a retail store, nightclub, restaurant, or even their home. “Before [SXSW], our record for checkins was 250,000 [for one day],” Crowley said. “This past Saturday, it was 350,000. That’s not a linear increase; that’s a huge jump. That huge jump, I believe, was [SXSW-based] traffic.”

Indeed, the offline tactic apparently drove digital numbers and was further bolstered by positive coverage from consumer press outlets. The New York Times wrote about the brand’s appearance at SXSW, CNN included Foursquare in a segment about the festival, and had a feature article about the brand. Also, Hollywood celebrity Ashton Kutcher – in town to promote his media firm Katalyst – tweeted about the social game to his 4.6 million Twitter followers during the festival.

Foursquare Looks to Grow Brands’ Presence as Audience Increases

What the growth spurt means to the company’s advertising initiatives – which have been aggressive compared to Twitter – remains to be seen. Foursquare offers paid placement on its site that includes an icon on the home page and a brand page where updates can be posted. Bravo, Zagat, The New York Times, and Lucky Magazine are among the advertisers so far.

“We’re starting to see brands sign up for Foursquare and get involved with what we are doing,” Crowley said. “Usually they leave tips behind for users to find…things like suggestions.”

The company’s six-month-old, free-to-use “Foursquare For Businesses” platform has been much more popular, as hundreds of local restaurants/bars and individual chain stores are participating. Mostly, they offer freebies for people with 10 or more checkins. An example from a Canadian pizza joint: “Free slice and drink on your 10th checkin. Free Large Pizza, 1 topping on your 20th checkin!”

Advertisers like that one are drawn to Foursquare due to the sticky nature of the game. For instance, if the user has more checkins than anyone else for a particular business, the person becomes the “mayor” of the location until someone out-visits him or her.

Beginning last week, Foursquare has been offering businesses a dashboard to track activity associated with their locations. The metrics include total checkins, the number of checkins that get posted to Facebook and Twitter, and total unique visitors.

It appears that if Foursquare can sustain the growth and become part of people’s daily lives in a manner anywhere close to Twitter and Facebook, the company could attract many more brands – particularly big retailers to automatically push coupons as people “checkin” at their stores. But it will have to fend off heightened activity in the locations-based social space from players like Gowalla, Loopt, and Whrrl.

Such competition is why a rumored big round of funding could be welcome news for Crowley and his team. However, the 100,000 new users may end up being more important as Foursquare tries to leverage its potential as a marketing channel.

For advertisers, Crowley said, “it’s more potential exposure for them. It is more users they can hit.”

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