Virtual reality

Angela Vithoulkas from VIVO Café used geosocial networks to translate online marketing into actual business money.

Angela Vithoulkas from VIVO Café used geosocial networks to translate online marketing into actual business money.

Geosocial sites are promising restaurateurs a way of getting to know their customers like never before

When a NSW South Coast resident known as Kurt S picked up his lunch from a local café for the third time in one week last June, he took more than just a burger home with him. He also took the right to call himself mayor of the business. For the three million users of one of the world’s fastest growing geosocial networks, Foursquare, the online ‘badge’ won by Kurt is much more interesting than what he ate to get it.

And for restaurateurs looking for new ways to connect with an increasingly tech-savvy clientele, that same badge promises a world of new marketing opportunities.

While networks like Twitter and Facebook still promise the most exposure for businesses venturing into the realms of new media, sites like Foursquare, Booyah, Gowalla and Yabble are now targeting a distinctly local audience by pairing the power of the net with the personality of the mobile phone.

And many restaurateurs are learning that combination can bring customers right through your front door.

Confused? Don’t be. In many ways, geosocial networks are simpler than the massive web-based systems of Facebook or Twitter, as they’re primarily operated via an individual’s smartphone. After signing up for a free account online, users then download software onto their iPhone, BlackBerry or Android mobile that allows them to ‘check in’ in real time at various locations in their neighbourhood. With the click of a button, users can alert their network that they’re at a specific location, while also accessing any special deals the business might be offering. It’s a way of allowing other users to see where they are and what they’re doing, as well as collecting rewards both in the virtual game (like badges, mayorships or other titles) and in real-life. By using the GPS systems built into most modern phones, users can interact with their friendship networks and other contacts online and in real-time simultaneously.

For many business owners, it’s the combination of this real-world interaction and online gaming that offers the most potential in marketing terms. For starters, it’s completely free and requires little time or effort to set-up or maintain. And secondly, it builds customer loyalty without even trying.

Australian social media strategist and blogger, John Johnston, says local cafés and restaurateurs have been surprisingly quick to jump on the Foursquare bandwagon.

“Loyalty programs run by cafés, bars and restaurants seem to make up the bulk of all Foursquare specials right now, and that will perhaps continue into the future,” he says.

While it’s unclear exactly how many Foursquare users there are in Australia right now, Johnstone estimates there are around 60,000 in Sydney alone.

“This isn’t huge compared to Facebook’s 500 million users or Twitter’s 100 million, but it’s still early days and certainly doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be used as one of a raft of online marketing tools.

“But what is interesting is that Foursquare, unlike Facebook and Twitter, has the very real potential to benefit small and medium enterprises,” Johnstone says.

“I wanted to see if we could translate online marketing into actual business money without spending a cent.” VIVO Café, Angela Vithoulkas

One such example is Johnstone’s own local coffee shop, VIVO Café in George Street, Sydney, which offers a free coffee with a meal every time somebody ‘checks in’. They can also unlock certain badges tied to VIVO events within the game. By coincidence, VIVO Café is situated very close to the Sydney Apple Store, so when users check into that location, a banner appears on their screen telling them there’s another Foursquare special nearby.

For Johnstone, it’s a sign of the very real potential sites like Foursquare could pose down the track.

“At present, there would have to be a higher percentage of Foursquare users visiting tech stores like Apple than many other places in Sydney, so there’s certainly an added bonus for nearby venues,” he notes.

At the time of writing, VIVO had recorded 136 unique checkins via the Foursquare network, with more new users coming to the premises for its Foursquare special every day.

“Everything in this café is great,” says the current mayor of VIVO, known only as ‘Gloria’. “But the pumpkin and lentil burger is a must-try.”

Other users spruiked similar recommendations, including one who described the rare roast beef sandwich as “brilliant”, one who voted the coffee as the best in Sydney, and another who liked the free wifi available in-store.

It’s this ability for users to add tips and recommendations about a check-in location that has many restaurateurs excited about the marketing potential of geosocial networking.

And while it might have begun as “an experiment” for the general manager of VIVO Café, Angela Vithoulkas, she says it was also a very deliberate route to take.

“I wanted to see if we could translate online marketing into actual business money without spending a cent,” she explains.

In two separate events, Vithoulkas promoted the café to online users, prompting them to come in-store at a certain time to claim either a free ‘signature’ sandwich or to unlock a special Foursquare badge known as ‘Swarm’.

“We ended up breaking a world record. From inception to execution it took 14 days. And amazingly, people who first connected online were now connecting in the real world.”

This wasn’t just an event for VIVO Cafe and me, it was a demonstration of how the boundaries of business are not physical—that this virtual arena could turn into reality simply because of a venue. A venue is all it takes to bring the virtual world into the physical world of connecting business for profit.”

And if that’s not enough of an endorsement for the power of geosocial networking, the promise of providing businesses with real-world analytics sourced from sites like Foursquare just might. The site has recently started offering data collected from online users to registered businesses, including where customers have been before they come into your store, and where they go afterwards.

It is also developing a new tool that uses data about check-in activity to recommend restaurants to users based on their location. Developers say they are currently testing the tool internally by using it to decide where to eat lunch each day, and hope to make the new offering public soon. Third-party developers will then also be able to generate similar recommendation engines using Foursquare data, they claim on the site.

As John Johnstone explains, it has been hard for restaurateurs to gather the rich analytics of their customers that a website can—until now. “Foursquare is now finding a way to quantify this by telling a store owner where their customers went before and after, who their most loyal customers are, when they come in, where else they choose to dine, and how often.” Want to get personal with your customers? Log in.

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