Inside SCVNGR: My tour of one of the hottest mobile apps in higher ed

On a recent trip to Boston I had a unique opportunity to learn about one of the fastest growing mobile apps for the iPhone and Android:  SCVNGR.  In just under 9 months, SCVNGR has seen some pretty impressive growth, reaching 1,000,000 registered users in late February and partnering with too many companies and institutions to name.

My gracious host, Jeffrey Kirchick, invited me to come by the SCVNGR offices after I tweeted that I’d be visiting Boston within the next few days.  I gladly accepted the invitation, not really knowing a lot about the company. Boy was I in for a surprise.

I arrived at the SCVNGR offices in Cambridge around 5pm on a Thursday and saw a bustling, energetic group of folks – most of whom weren’t even close to packing up and heading home for the day.  This place was just how I imagined an internet startup would be:  modern workspaces, young faces, white boards galore filled with numbered lists, and of course, an espresso machine.  I even got a peek inside what they call the War Room, though I wonder if any of them have seen Dr. Strangelove and really know what that reference means.


After a brief tour of the spaces, Jeff and I sat down to discuss the exciting things that SCVNGR is doing in higher education.  Partnering with universities and colleges, SCVNGR is able to help schools create an unforgettable mobile experience for new students, which, in turn helps forge a more positive initial impression for a lasting relationship between the student and the institution.

What I liked most about SCVNGR is that they are carefully positioning themselves, not as a foursquare competitor (as you might expect), but instead working to carve out their own niche in mobile gaming.  In a couple of my previous posts (here and here), I’ve been pretty up front about my disappointment with foursquare.  It was great to see SCVNGR taking a new approach, and I think they’re seeing the results of making their app less about the check-in and more about the shared experience.  They’re also aggressively seeking corporate and education partners to help them get to the next level.

All in all, I think SCVNGR is a company poised for more exponential growth in 2011.  Backed by Google Ventures, they secured an additional $15M in funding early this year and they’re getting lots of attention in the mobile app world.

Thanks again to Jeff for showing me around and introducing me to a great new mobile platform.  I’ll be watching in the coming months to see how things progress.

What are your thoughts on mobile gaming and the future of SCVNGR?

Three Creative Uses of Location Based Services

Over the past several months, I’ve gotten more interested in location-based apps (sometimes called location-based services, or LBS) and the incredible potential this idea has for businesses.  In my previous blog posts on the subject (regarding Foursquare’s downtime and the announcement of Facebook Places), I’ve maintained that these mobile apps have brought no real value to my life thus far – not because of the services themselves, but because of the lack of creativity in creating meaningful, valuable marketing campaigns that engage customers.  Lately, I’ve seen more progress and I’m happy to share a couple of the good ones.

Facebook Places – Southwest Airlines and Make-A-Wish Foundation team up for charity

I like this one because I volunteer with Make-A-Wish as an airport greeter, meeting “wish kids” and their families coming to San Diego from out of town.  When you check in with Facebook Places at a Southwest Airlines airport, they’ll donate a $1 to MAW Foundation.  Better yet, they walk you through the process in case you haven’t done much checking in.  The result is an easy, effective and charitable way to use location-based apps.  Make-A-Wish Foundation raises money, SWA gets more check-ins and earns some social capital.  Pat on the back to everyone who worked on this campaign.

Me with Wish Kid Arieus

Foursquare and the History Channel

You’ve got to hand it to the History Channel on this one.  They’ve actually added factual, historical content as a ‘tip’ at what appears to be hundreds of location pages on Foursquare.  Sure they cover the typical monuments, parks, & museums you’d expect, but I found tons of businesses and other attractions on their list.  Because the folks at the History Channel have their facts straight and include a little more information in their tips, many more people are inclined to check the “I’ve done this!” box, keeping their tips at the top.  Check out an example with the Bellagio Hotel in Vegas.  The History Channel adds more than just, “go see the water show,” and in return gets much more action on their tips.  I’m curious to know if this has affected their viewer ratings on cable, increased web traffic, or raised any other performance metrics.  Anyone got any inside info?

Gowalla Giveaways

Gowalla has spent most of the month of December giving away stuff for people who check in – things like watches, backpacks, Southwest Airlines travel vouchers.  I haven’t signed up for Gowalla yet, but judging by some of these incentives, I might have to give it another look.

What examples have you seen of creative and valuable new uses of location based services like Foursquare, Gowalla, and Facebook Places?

Lessons and Links: 3 Takeaways from 3 Days at a Marketing Conference

After spending 2.5 days at the Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education organized by the American Marketing Association, I’ve definitely come away with a ton of new ideas, energy, and renewed focus.  Below is a quick summary and my top 3 takeaways from the great event.

Attendees included folks from higher education from around the country (and a few I met from other countries).   From what I could gather, most of the participants were from the east coast (as shown by the big map displayed at the readMedia booth.  Note: the map continued to fill up and most of the biz cards were pinned to the wrong coast).

Credit: Amy Mengel, readMedia

First, my top 3 takeaways from the week:

  1. Measuring your efforts is key. At the symposium I attended in Chigago in 2008, measuring social media efforts was still a bit of a mystery to most people. Some argued it could be done, but few believed it could be done with any accuracy. Obviously, many things have changed and there are more ways to measure than ever. I heard it said best this week: you can’t manage what you don’t measure.
  2. Mobile is one of the highest potential segments for higher ed. Read below for some impressive examples of mobile apps on campus.
  3. You’re not alone. I heard lots of people all expressing similar frustrations regarding centralized control of marketing functions, getting faculty buy-in, branding, logo policing, and more. Incremental progress is the way to go. Many of the presenters talked about 2007/2008 as the year they started some of these initiatives – they’re just now presenting results at a conference. Be patient, be realistic.

Ok, so on to my summary of the experiences I had at the conference.  Day 1 started with an “interesting” keynote from Marita Wesley, director of creative strategy development for Hallmark Cards.  Many people didn’t get her presentation style, as she blew through about 200 slides in a 45 minute talk, often spending no more than 2-3 seconds on a particular slide.  Still, I grabbed a few nuggets from her presentation on trends in 2010 and beyond – including a few interesting books to check out.

The breakout sessions that followed were great for me (we had 4 great choices for breakouts, so it was sometimes difficult to prioritized and decide which to visit).  First up was a session on mobile apps on campus with Lisa Lapin and Tim Flood from Standford University.  The school embraced mobile technology early on, and as a result, they’re pretty far out ahead with their iStanford application (12,000 registered users).  Follow the link for a great look at the features of the app.

Rounding out the morning, I sat in on the presentation by Michigan State and their branding company, 160over90.  I had a chance to talk with the folks from 160over90 and was really impressed with their work (not to mention the college-themed party they threw on Monday night, complete with foosball tables and a movie reel of college movies like Revenge of the Nerds and Rudy)!

The lunch keynote was Spencer Frasher from Google, who mainly talked about the importance of search in all types of marketing (surprise).

Day 2 of the conference was again very valuable, starting with a presentation by Teri Thompson, VP marketing for Purdue University.  Since Teri came from industry, her stories and examples were a bit different from the others we had heard throughout the week – and they were all great.

Tuesday’s lunchtime keynote, Macalester College President Brian Rosenburg, was also very engaging, and quite possibly created the most buzz from those on Twitter.  Just take a look at the video and you’ll see what I mean.  Over 60,000 hits on a low-budget masterpiece that has inspired some great conversations and press for a college of only 2,000 students.  Definitely a social media win!

Tuesday afternoon, Joe Hice from NC State stole the show, again talking about location-based services on campus.  Everyone was floored by this one, since they’re light years ahead of most for-profit businesses (at least from what I’ve seen) regarding their adoption of mobile apps and the full integration of mobile in their entire strategy.  Well done, NC State!

Tuesday ended with more networking and all those drawings that I never seem to win.  You know, drop your business card for a chance at a $100 iTunes gift card – that kind of stuff.  This time,  I actually won something… big… like a 32G iPad from PlattForm Advertising!  I mean, I never even win the $25 bag raffle at Trader Joe’s, so this was a complete surprise.  Thanks again, PlattForm!

So, yeah, I actually won two grand prizes.  Did I mention the $200 Apple Store gift card I picked up from Zone 5?  I actually won by scanning a business card with a QR code – pretty neat idea and had people talking.  Now I can actually go buy a few accessories for the new iPad!

Day 3 started with a great presentation by Dave Kissel from Zocalo Group, a “sustainable word of mouth marketing” company.  Dave focused on the use of social media and provided stories from outside higher ed to show how the fundamentals are still the same.  Finally, we wrapped up the conference with what was more of a conversation between everyone in the room about their best practices, burning questions, and predictions led by Rachel Reuben, Michael Stoner (great blog, by the way, which he used to help create the content of his presentation), and Fritz McDonald.

Some conference attendees wishing they could stay in SD a little longer!

Shout outs are in order to tons of other people I met this week, but the list is pretty long (and so is this blog post).  Amy Mengel created a killer Twitter list of AMA attendees who tweeted using the #amahighered hashtag.  Some of my favorite tweets came from Michael Perrone, Ray Witkowski, Amy Mengel, Rachel Reuben, Michael Stoner, and so many others!  Thanks again to everyone for sharing great ideas and stories.  I hope you all enjoyed our fair city and had some time to get out and see the sights.  See you in Chicago in 2011!

More on Facebook Places vs Foursquare

Facebook made another big announcement yesterday regarding its Facebook Places application. They’re now giving businesses the chance to offer several different types of deals for people who check in using their smartphone. As usual, Mashable did the best job of summarizing the announcement and what it means for consumers and businesses.  Read the Facebook blog post to see some interesting comments.

A Fast Company article this morning asked the obvious questions: does this mean the end for Groupon and Foursquare?  I asked the same question about Foursquare in my blog post from about a month ago when the popular location-based application went down for several hours over a couple of different days.  I argued that no one really cared, despite the amount of press and endless discussion created by the outage.

Photo credit: Tony Avelar/AP

As a consumer, I think there is a great opportunity for businesses to use location-based deals.  For some reason, though, I still don’t see many businesses taking advantage of Foursquare deals.  Perhaps it’s a lack of familiarity with Foursquare and its capabilities?  Maybe they don’t recognize the potential for offering deals?  In an effort to educate businesses, Facebook has created a video to help them their own deals.

Regarding the question on Foursquare’s future… I typed “foursquare” into my Google search bar today and the first suggestion was “foursquare down.”  Is Google trying to tell us something?  Is Foursquare going down?

Foursquare’s Downtime: Does Anyone *Really* Care?

I’ve seen a lot of talk over the past couple of days about Foursquare being down and somehow that’s a big problem worthy of several news stories and blog posts.  Sure it’s a hot topic, so everyone is jumping onboard – but I propose that if Foursquare went away tomorrow, most people wouldn’t even notice (except the VC’s who funded the $21.4M for the startup).

If you haven’t heard, Foursquare is a location-based application you download to your smartphone that allows you to check in at restaurants, bars, stores and other businesses, sharing that information with your “friends.”  Straight from the Foursquare home page: “We’re all about helping you find new ways to explore the city.  We’ll help you meet up with your friends and let you earn points and unlock badges for discovering new places, doing new things and meeting new people.”

Just to see what it was all about, I downloaded Foursquare several months ago.  Since that time, I’ve checked in a modest 62 times to earn a total of 5 “badges”.  Foursquare has brought absolutely no value to my life, yet I continue to open the app when I’ve got some downtime at a new restaurant.  Perhaps the best function I’ve found on Foursquare is the “see nearby tweets,” where I might find someone talking about something interesting.

My mix of “friends” on Foursquare is pretty diverse – a friend from my hometown back in Texas, a web designer I’ve worked with but never met in person, a local on-air radio personality, and a handful of folks from Twitter I may have met once or twice.  I’m not sure they’re too interested in knowing where I’m having lunch.

With the rise in popularity of location-based check in services from Yelp, and more recently, Facebook Places, people have many different options to share their location and activities with their friends.  I think Facebook Places actually has the best chance of survival of these types of services, since the personal connections are much deeper and the user base is so much broader.

With approximately 3 million Foursquare users, I wonder how many of those people really noticed a few hours of downtime over the past couple of days?  I don’t know anyone in my inner circle who uses the service on a regular basis, and further, I don’t know of any businesses who put much time and effort into Foursquare promotions.

What about you?  Did the Foursquare downtime ruin your day or did you even notice?