Based on Twitter, blogs, and web conferences, it looks like everybody in higher education is talking about check-ins, Facebook Places, Foursquare, Gowalla, and SCVNGR. No matter where they work, from liberal arts colleges to big state universities, many web communication and online marketing professionals have already adopted location-based services (LBS). More and more have been busy claiming the Facebook Place for their institution, creating a Gowalla tour, applying for the Foursquare University Program, or setting up their first SCVNGR trek. Looking at this buzzing activity, it would be fair to assume the higher ed LBS gold rush has officially started.
But, has it?
While it's true that local has become the new black on the web, this growing interest in LBS among higher education communicators surprisingly precedes—more than it follows—noticeable usage among college students. According to a mobile phone survey conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in September 2010, only 8 percent of the young adults aged 18 to 29 reported using an LBS service such as Foursquare or Gowalla. Younger mobile phone users are definitely ahead of the others with only 4 percent of adults older than 29, on average, reporting they're using LBS.
If scores of students haven't been expecting, pushing, or demanding that their respective institution join the check-in bonanza, the main players of the geosocial media scene, namely Foursquare, Gowalla and SCVNGR, have. Through special university programs and public relations campaigns since last September, they seem to be responsible for part of this sudden interest among campus offices. Following the launch of the native check-in application Facebook Places over the summer, these companies have all intensified their efforts to engage college students in what looks like an attempt to build stronger momentum around their respective service.
It's a tactic taken right from the Facebook playbook. And this race is far from over, with Facebook adding the new feature Facebook Deals in November 2010, offering similar options for users and institutions. Brad J. Ward, CEO of BlueFuego, a firm that helps universities with web marketing efforts, sees Facebook Places and Deals, and LBS in the broader sense, as the newest shiny objects. "I've seen many rushing towards these services and trying to figure out how to use them, and it's unfortunate because they haven't even grasped and leveraged the rest of the Facebook platform yet," he explains.
Although some of the buzz around LBS in higher education has cleverly been engineered, the possibilities offered by these services are real.
In a report written in November 2010 for the Pew Internet and American Life Project, Kathryn Zickuhr, a web coordinator, and Aaron Smith, a senior research specialist, hinted the growth in LBS usage could follow the same rate of status updating services offered by Twitter, Facebook, and others. "These status updating services have grown in popularity over the past two years, from 6 percent of online adults saying they had used such a service in August 2008 to 24 percent in September 2010," note Zickukr and Smith.
It's not a fad, but it's probably a bit too early to spend too much time or too many resources on LBS.
-Tim Jones, North Carolina State University
At Concordia College (Minn.), Communications Specialist Gia Rassier was trying, in late November 2010, to get a branded Foursquare presence to entice more of the institution's 2,800 students to use the service. "We have about 20-30 users—with varying levels of activeness—who regularly check in on campus, add tips, and compete for various mayorships," says Rassier. With less than 1 percent of the student body engaged on Foursquare at Concordia College, calling it a major push might be a bit far-fetched.
An early adopter and partner of Foursquare since January 2010, Harvard had more than 14,000 followers by year end. Fantastic for a student body of 21,000, right? Not quite when you look at check-in activity. As of December, the most popular Foursquare venue for the university was Harvard Coop. It scored only 400 check-ins in total, about 1.9 percent of the student body assuming no returning visitors and excluding faculty and staff.
Yet many prefer to invest a bit of time setting up check-in points used by a very small minority of students than to risk missing the LBS boat.
At the University of Florida, Bruce Floyd, web and social media manager, created some momentum around the Gowalla official campus tour he launched in 2010. Its tour includes points of interest from the traditional campus tour, photos, and maps, as well as useful and interesting information about its different stops.
"Our goal is to create some added value for those visiting or exploring campus," says Floyd. So how many people completed the entire Gowalla tour at UF? In late November, only 16, despite the 1,300 clicks originating from the links on UF's homepage and Facebook page. Adoption among college students is still problematic. "I intend to remind folks about the existence of our current campus trip on Gowalla via Facebook and Twitter, where our students and fans already live," adds Floyd.
Created by a recent Princeton graduate and despite its different, more game-like approach to the LBS market, SCVNGR shows similar levels of continued engagement. Beyond the peaks observed during special events such as orientation or alumni weekends organized at the 350 partner institutions, including the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and Oregon State University, check-in activity remains marginal. Boston University had more than 300 teams engaged for its Comm Ave Trek and over 150 teams for its Alumni Weekend Trek, but the total activity at BU's student union was low, with 1,420 completed challenges in about four months. From September to early December of last year, only 197 unique visitors checked in at the student union, about 0.6 percent of the BU student population.
"Current numbers for activity remain modest compared to potential," confirms Tim Nekritz, director of web communication and associate director of public affairs at SUNY Oswego (N.Y.). For roughly a year, he's been a keen observer of the higher ed LBS scene - testing, reviewing, blogging, and presenting about these services. With a big institution-wide project, appropriate staffing, and a budget, it would be possible to generate critical mass, he believes. "But, even then, only a few hundred participants are engaged."
So, should your institution wait before diving into this brand new (yet somehow deserted) world of location-based services? If resources and time are scarce, the "wait and see" approach is probably the best for now—unless you want to and can make a strong statement, like North Carolina State University did.
Partnering with a local start-up, TriOut, NC State has decided to launch its own branded location-based service. On Campus is not meant to create yet another service, but to customize and augment the existing LBS experience of NC State's 31,000 students and 8,000 faculty and staff members. The application—only accessible at NC State—aggregates friends, activity, and check-ins from and to Facebook Places and Deals, Gowalla, Foursquare, and more. It provides an enjoyable, incentivized service for the campus community to play with, share photos and videos in, and connect with NC State friends. Its goal is to build a sense of community at the university level.
"Too often, we wait until emerging technology has fully emerged before we jump in and explore," says Tim Jones, director of web communication at NC State. With On Campus, the institution is trying to help shape the LBS discussion and experiment with this interesting concept.
"The potential is so rich, we're not willing to wait for someone else to do it and succeed or even fail before deciding if it's worth our effort," adds Jones, thus embodying his institution's goal to maintain leadership in science and technology.
Could location-based services be another Second Life—that was all the rage in 2007 but—never really caught on? Maybe. But, they may also be another Twitter or even Facebook in the making. Only time will tell.
Karine Joly is the web editor behind www.collegewebeditor.com, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also the founder of the professional development online community at www.higheredexperts.com.