Whose Game Is This Anyway? What Happens When the Actual Starbucks Barista Becomes Mayor?

Foursquare’s partnership with Starbucks is giving the game even more  mainstream exposure but also leading to the kinds of stakeholder complications I discuss in my recent posting about Facebook.  The dilemma outlined in a recent article is this: Starbucks is offering a special reward ($1 off a Frappucino) to the mayors of its individual establishments.  However, what happens when the mayor of your local Starbucks is the one serving you your coffee?

Well, some are crying foul.  Employees, they say, should not be allowed to participate in promotional contests.  A valid point, but the complication comes from the fact that foursquare is not a Starbucks platform or even a platform developed for marketing or promotional purposes.

This harkens me back to the question I asked Dennis Crowley when I first heard him speak during Social Media Week in NYC. What, I asked, was his plan in developing 4Sq?  What was the history and the intention?  I asked because there seemed to be real monetization potential for this platform, that is strikingly uncharacteristic of predecessors such as Facebook, Twitter and even Google, which did not have a monetization plan for the first five years.

So I wondered whether the Crowley crew had these brand partnerships, e.g., Bravo,  in mind when they developed the tool.  Though Dennis deferred my question to a later conversation, my general feel from what he did say is that the application was created more with the users in mind than as a monetizable tool.  If I remember correctly, the main impetus was that since Dodgeball had been sold to Google, he and his friends lacked that kind of mobile tool to communicate and coordinate.  Moreover, as he stated during this week’s Bartiromo interview, the full monetization plan is still evolving.  And, in my opinion, it is evolving from several directions: (1) the power of the data (2) the simple promotional opportunities (3) the strategic partnerships.

Returning to the coffee cup at hand, Foursquare is not a Starbucks platform.  Rather, Starbucks is offering a benefit that is meant to enhance the foursquare experience and, in return, foursquare is providing a targeted communications vehicle and a platform that makes this special offer logistically possible.

But when real money starts to be part of the game – I believe that one of the big box CE retailers is offering a sizable incentive and Dennis, himself, just posted on Facebook that a lobster restaurant (@ Luke’s Lobster) is offering a 10% discount – things change.

4Sq today depends to a great degree on the honor system.  The team has had to implement some anti-cheating controls lately such as preventing people from getting points or badges or mayorships when they check into a venue too far away from where their phone says they actually are, but it’s still based on fair play.

But this is not the crucial point – to my mind.  The fact that the employees at SBs are checking in and, potentially, becoming mayor is not foul play at all. It’s the original intention of the game, to let your network know where you are.  Preventing employees from checking in or even becoming mayor changes the nature of the game and the meaning of the titles and badges.  I am interested to see how this unfolds as new people are introduced to 4Sq as a commercial – promotional tool first rather than vice versa.

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