Catch Me If You Can

Foursquare and Gowalla combine social media, games, and on-the-town discovery...all from your mobile phone.



It’s the latest big buzz in social media, and if you have a cell phone, preferably a smart-phone, you can play along. And we do mean “play.”

Currently there are two main players in location-based games: Foursquare and Gowalla. They have their differences, but basically serve the same purpose—they allow you to “check in” at local restaurants, bars, clubs and attractions like museums (that’s the “location” part). You can let your friends who are on the service or connected via Twitter or Facebook know where you are (that’s the “social” part), and you can collect points, badges, tokens and sometimes even tangible prizes based on your check-ins (that’s the “game”).

Basically, the services work like this: When you’re at a location, take out your phone, fire up your Foursquare or Gowalla app (iPhone, Android, Blackberry), and “check in.” The service can help find your location based on your GPS or Wi-Fi coordinates. You can then choose to share your check-in with friends (or not), and you can even add messages or tips, like a favorite menu item.

Currently, Foursquare is the leader in location-based games, and Pittsburgh was added as one of its cities last fall. Ever see a message on Twitter or Facebook saying your friend is now “Mayor of Joe’s Bar”? That’s Foursquare. It means your friend leads all other locals with check-ins at that location. Gowalla? It’s the prettier app and gaining popularity fast.

Why should you care? Like Twitter or Facebook before it, these location-based games aren’t necessarily easy to “get” right away. But like those services, these games are about using technology to connect with others and to share likes and dislikes.

Abby Ross, assistant director of internal communications at Carnegie Mellon University, who also happens to be well-known and well-liked in local social-media circles, is a particular fan of Gowalla, both for its features and for its design. “These location-based services are not a big shift from Twitter, because people are already curious about what their friends are doing,” Ross says. “They add the element of a game and a creative way to discover great new places in Pittsburgh.”

And that’s exactly why businesses should care. By offering incentives to users of Foursquare or Gowalla, such as discounts or a free item to those who check in or achieve a certain status, a business can help spread the word about what it has to offer and can thank those who check it out.

Chris Dilla, owner of Bocktown Beer and Grill in North Fayette, a business that is active on other social-media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, says she is “extremely in-tune” with how the location-based services can help business. “We have customers coming in who are definitely using them, and we’re learning about taking part and making the most of the services, both for our customers and for us. Like all social media, it’s fun, builds camaraderie and brings real people through the door.”

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