Why Foursquare and Gowalla Campus Tours Will Fail


Posted by Howard Kang, Ignition Officer

Back in March I decided to go on foursquare and Gowalla tours of Harvard’s campus while I was in Boston visiting clients. I’ve never been to Harvard’s campus, so I thought it’d be the perfect opportunity to understand the perspective of a prospective student.

I’ll share my experience with you and what I learned from it all.

I’ll go ahead and say it. Location-based network tours by themselves are not effective or practical. If that’s your plan for innovative marketing, you’re more concerned with new trends vs. reaching students. Here’s why.

The image above shows where the spots for the Harvard Yard tour on Gowalla are laid out. (Foursquare doesn’t provide trips, but has a badge you can earn. Foursquare isn’t really designed for trips as it’s only location based to a certain extent, whereas Gowalla uses a precise location.)

So tell me honestly, do you think a high school student, completely unfamiliar with the campus would be able to easily navigate through these spots they’ve never seen or been to on campus with just this information? Me neither.

First issue. Gowalla does not layout a logical path for the tour. It merely provides you with the location, spots included in the tour, and approximately how many directional meters the spot is from you. If a student is completely unfamiliar with the campus (as I was), the only way to navigate from path to path is to pull up the spot, map myself there on my iPhone through maps, follow the direction to the spot (and hope the GPS locates me accurately), open Gowalla, check-in, navigate to the trip again, and start the process over again. Not exactly an easy or intuitive process. I also didn’t really know what the buildings looked like unless it was a featured spot and had a special icon (Gowalla has since added a photos feature in April which changes this) so I really didn’t know exactly where things were. (Oh, and perhaps we should have started with the fact that both tools have an extremely limited user base at this point, so the odds that your audience is using the tool to begin with is very slim.)

Additionally, GPS in mobile devices can often be unreliable when pinpointing exact locations. Gowalla users often complain about being unable to check-in to places due to their location being read as slightly off. In-fact I faced that problem while on my “tour.” I literally was touching the John Harvard statue and my phone could not locate me. I could check-in with foursquare because foursquare is quite lenient with the radius one can check-in from, but I had to recalibrate my GPS several times before I was located.

Beyond the technical glitches that hindered me, I ultimately gained little from the “tour.” The campus tour can be the deciding factor in many cases for prospective students. It’s their opportunity to get a feel for the people on campus, the culture, the lifestyle, the steps they’ll be walking, even the smell. Using a mobile device to take your tour ultimately serves as a distraction. I spent my time looking down at my phone figuring out if I was in the correct placement to even notice what was going on around me. Also, without a knowledgeable voice to look to, I was left to learn about the campus from the short sentences the descriptions told me. Essentially, what makes the campus tour special revolves around the human connection. Students want to be able to experience the campus enough to be able to say, “Hey, I can really see myself here.” If your tour guides are telling prospective students a collection of statistics that you can find on your website, that doesn’t cut it. If that’s the case, your prospective students probably will benefit more from NOT paying attention and watching the current students. A mobile phone tour by itself can’t provide that, it actually detracts from the experience (vs. walking around alone). The less technological version of a location-based network tour is a checklist of locations on a piece of paper and going through campus with that by yourself. Before mobile phones, would you trust that to represent your campus?

Harvard partnered with foursquare to encourage current students and faculty to go explore and do more on and around campus. Prospective students can’t compete for mayorships on campus (a large driving point for foursquare) as they will not be on campus everyday like current students.

Now, am I saying there’s no place for location-based networks in Higher Ed? Absolutely not. I’m simply saying, as always, “Chase the goals, not the tools.” Don’t use foursquare and Gowalla just because it’s “trendy” and “hip” if you don’t have goals or strategy to back up the time you’re expending to create these tours. Gowalla and foursquare can be used creatively to augment the traditional tour as well as help create memories (which have huge power), but again, does not work by itself.

I encourage you to go and try a location based campus tour from the eyes of an unfamiliar prospective students yourself and share your thoughts. Feel free to share your thoughts below!

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  1. Great insights! I’ve actually been toying with the idea of a Foursquare tour but was holding back over many of these concerns. I think the technology will have to go a couple steps farther before it could be effective in helping us achieve our goal of engaging students.

  2. I don’t think these tools can be used to guide the tour (not yet anyway) but there are definite ways to enhance the tour. I could see it being used like a scavenger hunt :)

  3. Gowalla and FourSquare campus tours (along with every other form of social media) will fail if we expect them to replace real engagement with real people. You said it best here: “Gowalla and foursquare can be used creatively to augment the traditional tour as well as help create memories (which have huge power), but again, does not work by itself.” Similar statements can be made about Facebook, Twitter, et al.

  4. Totally agree with Patrick Powers here. I don’t think the value of trips can be discounted completely.

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