Tag Archives: communication

Shake, Rattle, and Rolling Along

 I’m beginning to see the effects of aging on my proficiency in much of my work; not just the slow and inexorable deterioration of mental acuity, but the slight discomfort I sometimes experience when either writing or typing. Due to my essential tremors, and the loss of flexibility and dexterity that can’t be avoided with aging, I frequently find there are times when I can barely do either. I have experienced instances when the shaking has been so bad I had to stop, stand up, and walk away until the shaking subsides.

For many years I’ve believed as long as I had the ability to type and use a computer, I would be able to communicate and, more importantly, work and earn at least a bit of income to supplement what retirement income I have. Now I’m faced with the possibility a time will come – perhaps not for another decade – when I will not easily be able to do so. I’ve experimented over the years with apps like Dragon Dictate, but I’m so much more comfortable actually having my fingers on a keyboard. If I am forced to do it, I suppose I’ll adapt. The prospect isn’t terribly exciting though.


All Hail The Beneficent, Ubiquitous Keyboard

There’s a little sort of game going on in Facebook lately. Someone is challenged to list three things they’re thankful for for seven days, at the same time tagging a friend each day (or something like that) to do the same. I haven’t been asked to do it, and I have no plans of doing it either, as it just seems too spread out and broad to do justice to the recognition of those things we might be thankful for. Nevertheless, it does give me pause and I have been thinking about what I would say should I choose one or two specific things for which I’m thankful. There is one seemingly mundane thing that keeps popping into my head. My ability to type.

I can’t imagine how different my world would be if I had to use what an old girlfriend of mine called the “search and destroy” method of typing. Most people use the more pastoral term “hunt and peck”, but she spent several tours with the USO in Vietnam and her life was colored by her exposure to that war, the military, and her involvement in the movement to end it. If I were hampered by that inability, my social presence and my ability to communicate would be virtually non-existent.

I was fortunate. In Junior High School I took a typing class; instead of what I haven’t the faintest, but I recall it seeming to be the most useful option at the time. As a result, I learned to touch type. Later on, when I was in Law School, I secured a position as a legal secretary for a sole practitioner who did a lot of contract and property damage work for several of the largest car rental agencies in the country. We were very busy and my workload was challenging enough that my speed increased. I’ve never been as prolific as the best, but I was up to a little over 80 wpm, with few if any errors. That’s not quite as fast as the average person can speak, but it’s a respectable clip.

IBM Memory Typewriter

The IBM Memory Typewriter

The job turned out to be a major turning point in my life, as I was introduced to the early stages of office computing and word processing. We ended up getting an IBM Memory Typewriter, the one built on the correcting Selectric, but with a dial providing memory for 50 separate pages. We moved up shortly to an Artec Display 2000, which used two 8″ floppies and had a scrolling display of approximately 30 characters. I don’t remember if it was LED or LCD, but the characters were red. We used it for pleadings, and wills and trusts.

Back to typing speed and how critical it is to communication in today’s world. I don’t really have to imagine what it would be like, because I had an experience with a colleague that pointed it out rather clearly, though it took months for me to recognize what was happening. I was working with the Director of our newly formed Program Management Office at what was then the Rocketdyne Power & Propulsion business unit of The Boeing Company. We were at almost opposite ends of the main office building in Canoga Park and I was upstairs in what was called The Annex. The distance between his office and my cubesickle was around 400 yards; not a huge distance, but it took time to walk back and forth. Plus it meant passing through the Executive Office area and there were always distractions.

I can’t recall the exact dates, but it was very early in our use of Instant Messenger; so early that I had to point out its value, as most of the older staff (which meant all of the Executives) perceived it as only a toy their kids used to communicate with each other. I kept sending IMs to this Director, but he never answered them, nor did he respond in anything resembling a timely manner to emails, so I was forced to walk to his office repeatedly during the day.

It wasn’t until a couple of months had passed that I happened to be sitting with him in his office and he was answering an email. Watching him type . . . ever so slowly and painfully . . . made it clear why he never responded to me. He had to hunt anew for each letter and, with his two index fingers, peck them out in a long, excruciatingly difficult session. He clearly hated it. I know I was cringing as I watched. I never sent him an IM after that day.

I’m thinking the ability to type is one of those essential tools we seldom think about — perhaps take for granted — without which our world would be far less rich and fulfilling. I can type this post, tweet, post to Facebook, engage in lengthy, spirited debates with dozens of widely dispersed people, and participate in a plethora of other forms of communication or collaboration relatively easily, all because of my ability to type quickly and accurately. I imagine this is true for almost all, if not all, of my friends and acquaintances.

For this I am deeply thankful.


Making Contact

VVAW Button

An Honorable Organization of Good People

Since “announcing” my nascent book project the other day, I have communicated with four people who were part of the action back in the time I am writing about. One of them reached out and reminded me of some of the things we were involved in that had yet to cross my mind. Two of them I had been in touch with previously and they just happened to answer emails I sent out a couple of days ago. One I called today to give him a heads-up.

Of these four, two are Vietnam veterans; one an Army Engineer, the other an RTO with an Army LRRP team. They both played major roles in my life back then, as their opposition to the war they had fought in strengthened both my belief it was wrong and my resolve to do something to end it. I have a hard time putting into words just how much their friendship meant to me, but I’m going to try.

Right now I’m working on an Introduction; an attempt to explain what I want to accomplish in the body of the book. This is all kind of new to me. Not entirely, as I’ve had the honor and experience of working with a few other people (as an editor or proofreader) on books they’ve written. It’s just that I’ve never done the actual writing before and those books were business books (and a couple of Zombie Apocalypse novels). I’m hoping once I get going a lot of it will just come pouring out. Those were eventful times.


The Crowd, The Cloud, & Working Out Loud

A couple of years ago, in response to a request from the Simi Valley Chamber of Commerce, I conducted (as I recall) twice-monthly seminars on the use of social media for small businesses. They were called “Facebook Fridays” and you’ll never guess what day of the week we held them on. They started out as presentations on various aspects of the technology and the philosophy behind their use. However, after a short while it became clear that people had lots of specific questions they wanted answered. In response, I changed the nature of what I did and started each session off by opening it up to questions.

It worked quite well for nearly a year but, toward the end, attendance dwindled and I grew somewhat weary of doing the necessary preparation and having to show up twice a month. The Chamber found someone else willing to continue the work and I moved on. By that time I was becoming disenchanted with the direction I had chosen to attempt building a useful business and was looking to other areas of endeavor as well.

Recently, I had lunch with the CEO of the Chamber and we decided it would be useful for me to bring back what I had done before, the difference being the subject matter would be a little less focused on marketing and a lot more focused on business model, business process, technology, and cultural transformation. Today was the first of what I hope will be many such events.

I used a vehicle I have not used before to conduct this 50 minute webinar – Google Hangouts on Air. I’m not sure it’s the best way to conduct something like this, but viewership is unlimited and the session is both recorded and automatically placed on my YouTube Channel. I’m embedding the session below. This really was somewhat of an experiment and the subject was quite broad. I’d love to get some feedback. Don’t be shy now.


It’s OK, Beth. We’ll Carry On From Here

Beth Thompson

Farewell, Beth. You touched a lot of lives and will be sorely missed

I posted the following on Facebook two days ago and I want to share it here as a tribute to my friend and former colleague:

I am beside myself with grief. A couple hours ago I received a message from a friend who wanted to confirm what he had heard – that our former colleague and good friend, Beth Thompson, had passed away. I started frantically contacting as many people as I could think of, all the while hoping it was just some stupid Internet screwup. It was not to be. Apparently, while preparing to leave for work this morning, Beth suffered a heart attack and passed.

Beth was one of my first friends when I joined the Program Office on the Space Shuttle Main Engine program at Rocketdyne. Her good humor and iconoclastic attitude helped me ease into the corporate world, a world I didn’t join until I was 40 years old, and was ill-suited for. Along with many others I’m proud and happy to still call good friends, Beth was family. I still have the card she picked out for me and had everyone sign when I left for what turned out to be a short stint back in my family’s business. That was about 17 or 18 years ago.

She moved up to the Seattle area with her husband, Paul, and their three children, where she continued to work for Boeing, one of several major players that passed Rocketdyne around like a financial hot potato. This is tough to digest. My kids have seen me cry for the first time in their memory. People who are younger than you aren’t supposed to die before you do. It’s just not right.

We hardly saw each other in the past few years, but we liked and commented on each other’s FB posts now and again. At least I knew she was there and I got to see a little bit of her life and happiness. That is now gone and my world is poorer for it. Goodbye, Beth. I love you and will always remember how you brightened my world and the world of so many others.


Universal Innovation

Sometimes, it seems like innovation is all anyone talks about. It’s been a really hot topic for the last five or six years; probably more. In the last two years before I left Rocketdyne — let’s see, that would have been from 2008 to 2010 — I participated in several innovation classes/exercises and, in fact, I setup the SharePoint collaborative spaces that were used by the teams in one of these exercises that were exploring different avenues for the company to invest in. I was also part of a team looking at one of the many technologies we were investigating at the time, and we even brought in a Professor from the USC Marshall School of Business to help us “learn” innovation.

I’m not going to get into my thoughts about what it takes to be innovative, or creative, but I just want to throw out this observation I’ve been mulling over for some time and see what others think about it. One of the things I think I’ve noticed is that almost everyone approaches innovation primarily as a way to come up with new products or services to sell. There seems to be what I think of as a blind spot when it comes to how we got things done, to our processes and procedures that are the backbone of our day-to-day activities. I’m also not confining the daily activities we might look at to businesses or governmental agencies and institutions either. I’m also thinking about things like mass public transportation and local traffic patterns and uses, our use of public facilities like parks and schools, the ways we approach (or choose to ignore) recycling, the value of our food and how we produce, distribute, and consume it – and on and on.

So here’s my big question for now. What if we started looking at enabling – empowering, if you will – everyone who was interested, to be involved in social and cultural innovation; in our continuous social and economic evolution . . . as citizens of our local municipalities, our neighborhoods, our nations, and even as inhabitants of the planet Earth, i.e. as a species? What if we came up with ways to encourage, communicate, evaluate, and pursue ideas that would improve – dramatically or otherwise – the lives of many people, perhaps everyone? Very public ways. What would that look like? How would we do it? What would be the biggest challenges? What infrastructure and social constructs are already in place to support such a thing?


Google Glass and ALS

It’s been said the eyes are windows to the soul, and most of us can recognize much from looking into another’s eyes. We can sometimes communicate intricate thoughts and feelings through our eyes. Imagine, though, they were your only window to the world; the only method by which you could communicate, with anyone. Further, what if you were in a position where it was nearly impossible for you to initiate a conversation and, therefore, unless you had a way to get someone’s attention, you had to wait for others to anticipate your needs? Worse yet, once anticipated, that other person would have to use a method requiring them to initiate nearly every aspect of the conversation.

This is precisely the situation for thousands of people suffering from ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), MS (Multiple Sclerosis), TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), or any one of several other conditions that result in the inability to move and talk . . . or write . . . or use sign language.  All they can do is acknowledge your greetings or answer your questions with a wink, perhaps a nod. How would you communicate?

Recently, I had the opportunity to meet someone in that position. His name is Ismail Tsieprati, and he is one of the longest-surviving sufferers of ALS, having had the disease for thirty years. I first met Ismail’s caregiver and wife, Cheryl, at a local Chamber of Commerce networking breakfast. She had recently left a long-time position in corporate training and was looking to establish a web-based business as a training consultant. She asked if I could help her promote her business through social media, and also suggested she help turn some presentations I had done into webinars. I agreed, and we worked together for a short while. As life would have it, before we could finish she was offered a full-time position in corporate training, and I was coming to the painful realization I had been chasing a pot devoid of gold.

We trekked off on our separate trails, as casual business relationships often do, but we remained in occasional contact, through Facebook and comments Cheryl would make in response to one of my sporadic blog posts. One of the several projects I had been working on was editing and proofreading a book – Age of Context – authored by Shel Israel, a longtime author and tech journalist, and Robert Scoble, an authority on bleeding-edge technology and startups.

Toward the end of the project, I was given the opportunity to invite a number of friends to read an early, limited release of the book. In exchange, I asked them to provide an honest review on Amazon.com. Since Cheryl had been one of the people to occasionally comment on my blog, I thought of asking her to read and review the book. She was an excellent prospect because she is not a techie and readily admits to being somewhat befuddled with technology.

It turned out to be a good choice, in more ways than one. Cheryl was one of the few people, of the many to whom I sent a link to the early release, who took the time to write a review—a thoughtful, useful review at that—not merely a quick stab at providing an obligatory yay or nay. She also was hit between the eyes with some of the stuff she read about. Particularly relevant to her was Google Glass. Shel and Robert had devoted an entire chapter to it, and there were numerous references as well throughout the book. I’ll let her explain, in this excerpt from a chapter of the book about their 30-year journey with ALS she and Ismail are working on:

“The greatest fear for people living with ALS is there will be a day when they become “locked in” – so completely paralyzed in the late stages of the disease that even the simplest of muscle movements have been stolen from them and they will be unable to communicate in any way with the outside world.  Those who are “locked in” survive in complete isolation.  They can see and hear everything around them, comprehend everything, think complex thoughts, experience joy, sorrow, and pain, and yearn to communicate with their loved ones and caregivers – to express their feelings, their discomfort, and their desires, but they are hopelessly trapped inside their bodies with no way of communicating with anyone.  For Ismail and me, as well as for others with ALS and their families, overcoming communication barriers and fighting off the “locked in” syndrome is a lifelong battle; an absolutely essential one.  After all, Ismail loves to talk, and he has a lot to say.  He’s not going to let ALS or anything else shut him up!”

                            – Tears, Laughs, and Triumphs: A Thirty-Year Journey with ALS

What struck Cheryl was the knowledge that Glass could recognize eye movement. She was very excited about the possibility of making eyeglasses with eye gaze technology available to Ismail and people in similar situations. Current eye gaze augmentative communication technology involves much larger and more complex systems, which require careful placement and frequent adjustment. Cheryl wanted to talk about it, and I wanted to know more. We met for coffee and, after a bit of discussion, I told her I’d like to write about their situation. We decided I should meet Ismail to better understand his world and I was invited to their home.

Ismail and Stephen Hawking - August 14, 1992

Ismail Tsieprati with Stephen Hawking, Peninsula Hotel, Beverly Hills, California, August 14, 1992
Photo by Lynn Klein

I had mixed emotions about the upcoming meeting. I was to meet Ismail for the very first time, and I was somewhat nervous about the prospect. I had never met someone with ALS, and mostly knew about it through the story of baseball legend Lou Gehrig and one of my favorite theoretical physicists, Steven Hawking.

Cheryl had invited me to lunch. After meeting Ismail and talking to him and Cheryl about this post, I sat down at the dining room table while Cheryl went into the kitchen briefly to dish up the meal and bring it out for us to enjoy. In doing so, she left me sitting alone with Ismail. The silence was deafening. I felt extremely uncomfortable, as I was struggling with how to approach this unique (for me) situation. I had never communicated in this fashion before and it was awkward.

I hadn’t learned the process Ismail and his caregivers use, which involves what they call a “spelling chart”. Ismail can initiate communication in only two limited ways. One is by grinding his teeth, which ensures getting Cheryl’s or his other caregiver’s attention, provided they’re within earshot. The other method is to modulate his breathing so as to trip the alarm on his ventilator. This works at a greater distance than tooth grinding, but likely is more stressful on Ismail.

Once Ismail has someone’s attention, he communicates by using his spelling chart. Everyone who communicates directly with Ismail has memorized this chart, which appears below. Since the chart is in everyone’s head, there is nothing to carry around, set up, or adjust. It’s a quite simple and efficient system, but it’s time consuming and requires patience. This is how it works: The alphabet is divided up into six rows.  Row number 1 is “A-B-C-D,” row number 2 is “E-F-G-H,” and so on. The person talking to Ismail calls out the number of each row of letters until Ismail blinks to select the number of the line containing the letter he wants to use. The person then calls out each letter in the selected row, until Ismail blinks again to select the letter he wants. The person then starts all over again, calling out numbers of rows, then numbers or letters, as Ismail builds words, then sentences, then paragraphs. If Ismail selects number 7, he’s telling the person it is the end of a word or a paragraph.  If he selects number 8, he wants to give the person a number or a date. People can also ask him “yes” and “no” questions. One blink means “yes,” and two blinks mean “no.”

Spelling Chart used for communication

Spelling Chart used by Ismail and his caregivers for communicating.

There are other methods of communication available to people who cannot speak or use their hands. For example, years ago Ismail wrote a screenplay by using an infrared switch attached to his glasses that he operated by blinking his eye.  The switch triggered the selection of letters and numbers on an alphabet grid displayed on a computer monitor. The design of the chart was similar to the one Ismail and his caregivers use today.  Scanning technology highlighted letters one at a time to allow the user to select one. The program had word prediction, which made sentence-building faster, and a voice synthesizer that could speak words he typed or had programmed into the system.  The software program and voice synthesizer were similar to those used by Stephen Hawking.

Since Ismail’s eye blink may eventually grow too weak to be a reliable method of communication, eye gaze is the technology that provides hope for the future for him and others like him.  He has been practicing with an eye gaze system that is a communication device, speech generating device, Windows XP computer, and environmental control unit, all in one. The system allows Ismail to select letters and numbers by gazing at them for a programmable pre-set number of seconds. He can also select icons or images that trigger a voice synthesizer to speak words and sentences for him. The system also has the capability of accessing Windows and the worldwide web. But Cheryl says that Ismail becomes tired after practicing with this system for only a few minutes and grows frustrated trying to navigate around its screens.  It takes time to set up the equipment and reposition it properly every time he moves from one place to another, so the device is bulky and time-consuming to use except for those times he’s sitting in one place.  Although it’s possible to attach the unit to his wheelchair with a special bracket, the machine still needs to be moved out of the way during transfers, then readjusted again.

Enter Glass. What if it had the same total eye-gaze control capabilities that Ismail’s bulkier, less user-friendly equipment has? What if a complex communication, web-surfing, environmental control system could be worn in a pair of eyeglasses and operated by the movement and gaze of an eye? Since Glass contains a built-in display, there would no longer be a need for the much bulkier external devices that are currently used.

“My eye gaze equipment can be slow and tiring,” Ismail says.   “It is difficult and time-consuming to use. I hope there will come a day when technology will improve for many people like me who are paralyzed but want to continue to talk to the world. I hope that day comes soon.”

The question now is not if, but when. It’s also a question of priorities, I suppose. I’m not sure if Glass has the capabilities Ismail and others require, but it surely won’t be long before they’re realized. The other question is, are there developers who have both the skills and the desire to create such an app. Also, Glass is not the only device that can provide the necessary functionality. In addition to wearables like Glass, there are companies working on interpreting brain waves. Emotiv is one of them and they are working on a device called Epoc that currently provides limited capability. Right now, they are concentrating on game playing and some forms of gross manipulation, but it shouldn’t be long before their system (and others like them) become more sophisticated. They are also licensing an SDK for people who wish to write their own systems.

If you have any interest in this kind of thing, there are some golden opportunities out there. Perhaps there isn’t a fortune to be made, but the possibilities of helping tens of thousands of people live more productive and engaged lives despite severe disability are immense and will be, I have no doubt, enormously satisfying.


A Slight Change of Course

Since my presentation to the American Oil Chemists’ Society at the end of April, I’ve been seeking out other engagements to talk about using social media for managing communities within an enterprise. All of my experience heretofore has been inside the firewall of a large (very large) aerospace corporation, and it was the essence of my presentation to the AOCS.

I haven’t been actually hustling engagements; rather I’ve just been suggesting I’m available and that I might have something worthwhile to say. Today, nearly four months later, I finally had the opportunity to present to an organization that could use social media to improve their ability to achieve their goals, which are manifold – but not commercial.

The organization I spoke with today is a local Rotary Club that has two major fund-raisers each year. Originally, I had spoken with my friend and former Manager who, since retiring, has joined this Club and had suggested I might present, about the one I gave to the AOCS. However, after having dinner with the President of the Club it became clear he wanted to at least partially address the difficulty he’d been having with getting the membership to “like” their Fan pages and join and engage with their group page.

So . . . I put this together somewhat hastily and concentrated primarily on the benefits social media provide for communicating and sharing knowledge, as well as addressing the issue of reluctance to participate. I finished with a little info on how its use is disruptive and pointed out how they could use Clayton Christensen‘s concept of Jobs-to-be-done (disruptive innovation is one of his as well) to address the direction they might take their new efforts in.

I also prepared the presentation exclusively using Google Docs; the first time I have ever done that. The only exception is that I imported a couple of slides from my AOCS preso, which I originally prepared using PowerPoint. I also heavily annotated the slides, which I do not normally do, and printed out a copy of them and the notes. However, I did not use them during the presentation. Once I got going I just winged it, which seems to fit my style perfectly. Having the notes kept me from being nervous, but turned out to be mostly superfluous. I only experienced one moment when I couldn’t think of the right word I wanted to make a point, but it came to me reasonably quickly.

So . . . here ’tis. I don’t know how intelligible it is without the notes. Especially considering I made these slides last close to 25 minutes, I believe. I guess having a long history and lots of stories comes in handy when you tend toward loquaciousness. :)

One more thing. I uploaded the .pdf to Slideshare in the early evening and shortly afterward received an email from them that my presentation was the most talked about one on Facebook (where I had shared it) and so they were featuring it on their home page. Frankly, I didn’t see any evidence of the discussion, but the preso had been viewed close to 180 times last I looked, so maybe I’m getting some traction there. Hope you enjoy it.


Are Marie Callender’s & Applebee’s Providing Us Object Lessons?

Recently, our local (here in Simi Valley, CA) Marie Callender’s restaurant – a staple of the community for at least a couple of decades – was shut down as part of the recently merged (with Memphis based Perkins) company’s bankruptcy. I belong to a business network that has met there for most of the time they’ve been in business, though I’ve only been a member for less than a year. Still, having to eat breakfast there once a week was a bit of a trying experience, as the food was a couple taste buds short of mediocre.

The business network has a system of points one can earn for providing “tips”, which can run the gamut from a couple thousand dollar repair to your vehicle or home or eating a meal at a member’s (which Marie Callenders was) establishment. It’s a system that just invites gaming (in the worst sense of the word), inasmuch as each tip carries the same weight or value. Needless to say, many of the members found themselves eating there a couple of times a week. I never could bring myself to do so.

As part of my membership, I offered to provide a couple of free hours of social media marketing coaching and to see to it that each member had access to those services that promised to help their business out. Very few of them took me up on it; probably because most of these guys are almost as old as I am :). Marie Callenders was one of those businesses I struggled valiantly to see the efficacy of at least paying attention to what was being said about them online, especially the reviews that were being written on Yelp. They wouldn’t pay attention. My research had shown they were getting some pretty uniformly horrible reviews and, clearly, no one was paying much attention to them. I’m not surprised they’re no longer in business.

Though I can no longer check the reviews of our local Applebee’s – you see, they’ve closed down as well, actually before MCs did. Yelp doesn’t retain reviews after a business closes its doors. I now wish they would, if only so I could make sure my understanding of what happened is close to the truth.

I’m bringing this up in large part because a friend of mine posted an interesting piece entitled “Applebee’s Review Explains Why Companies Should Care About Online Reviews” (link). I think Mark hits the head right on the nail (sic) and find myself wondering if the experiences we’re seeing with Marie Callenders and Applebee’s aren’t indicative of just how useful these growing online review services are to those of us who like to eat out.

For quite some time in the enterprise world, the questions those of us advocating for greater use of social media had to answer consistently was, “What’s the ROI (Return on Investment) of using these tools? Why should we spend the money unless you can show us there’s added value in it?” Frankly, for a long time I struggled with the answer. It seemed clear to me they provided the basis for greater collaboration, easier communication, faster innovation, etc., but these things were hard to quantify in a classical sense. The answer that has stuck in my mind, though, (and I can’t recall where I heard it) is “The ROI of using social media is you’ll still be in business in five years.” I know that was somewhat glib, but I’m wondering now if Marie Callenders and Applebee’s aren’t providing us object lessons on just how prescient that statement was.


Would You Pass Up Free Advertising?

Foursquare Logo

Attract New and Reward Loyal Customers

I’ve been concentrating on a couple of new clients and have neglected to post for a couple of weeks. During this time I’ve been thinking about some of the subjects I’d like to cover. One of those is the use of Foursquare for small, retail businesses. Actually, it can be used for virtually any type of business, but the usage model it presents is most applicable to businesses with lots of traffic and churn. I see them as being in somewhat of a pyramid. For instance, those businesses that will get the most value from Foursquare are restaurants, bars, and clubs. Next in line are retail outlets and, finally, service businesses with a brick and mortar location.

Other types of businesses can use the service to get some free advertising, but if your business isn’t amenable to friends sharing the location (primarily because they want to enjoy each others’ company), it’s not going to have the same kind of value for you. As an example, there are Dentist’s offices who use it to present teeth cleaning and whitening specials. I am pretty sure people don’t check in to their Dentist’s office because they’re having a bang-up time and want to share it with their friends. However, everyone who uses Foursquare on their phone is going to get an impression of the special the office has created. You never know and, after all, it’s currently free!

Thanks to a heads-up from one of my friends, @mor_trisha, I read an article at ClickZ (authored by )  making essentially the same points I wanted to make. I’d like give you my version of why I think Foursquare is an important channel for small business to use, with a bit of local flavor for examples. I’d also like to expand a bit on how to use the service if you are a business owner considering using it.

First, let me say a few things about Foursquare in case you aren’t aware of what it is and how it’s used. Foursquare is a location-based, check-in application that consumers with smart phones can download and use to find nearby locations their friends frequent, as well as check-in when they are there. In addition, those merchants who have taken the time to “claim” their venue using the website provided for their use can create specials to entice new customers and to reward the loyalty of their ongoing customers. More about that in a bit.

As a user, Foursquare provides you with the ability to “check in” at a restaurant, pub, retail outlet, or service provider’s location whenever you are there. Using your phone’s GPS system you are provided, through the app, with a list of those venues that are close by. You can also see if any of your friends (or anyone else for that matter) is at a particular location so you can join them if you wish. In a rural environment or in a small town with few users, this capability is probably not all that useful. In my hometown, which is relatively small, the usage is now growing to the point where enough people are checking in for it to be useful. I imagine in large, urban areas it’s very useful – and likely lots of fun for some. There is also a couple of gaming aspects (points, earned badges) to using the service, but I’ll save that for another post.

Foursquare Globe

Think Global, Check-in Local

For business owners, Foursquare provides some interesting capabilities that are available for free. You cannot access them, however, until you take a little time to “claim” your venue. This is a relatively painless process that involves creating an account if you don’t already have one, finding your location on their website,  and clicking on the link that appears on the right hand side of your screen. It says “Do you manage this venue? Claim here.” Once you click on the link you will have to answer a few more questions, then agree to receive a phone call where you will be given a four-digit code to enter on another screen. After that, you will have access to some useful tools, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Now, I said relatively painless for a reason. I have had several instances where a business that’s been around for a long time was unable to use their phone number because Foursquare said they couldn’t verify it belonged to them. Since they had the number for quite some time, I’m unclear why this happens. Nevertheless, it isn’t the end of the road. Foursquare will give you the opportunity to have them contact you by snail mail, in which case you’ll receive the code you need as well as a cling to put in your window to advertise your presence on the site.

Once you have claimed your venue you will have access to their “Manager Tools”. These include venue statistics, which will show you number of check-ins, social reach (whether or not the info was sent to Twitter or Facebook), time, gender, and age breakdowns (as available), and the profiles of your visitors. This information can be presented in numerous time slices, e.g. today, last week, last 30, 60, & 90 days, or all. All of this information is useful for understanding the penetration and coverage you’re getting with people who use Foursquare.

However, in my opinion the most useful tool of all (and the one that will really make the stats worthwhile) is the ability to create campaigns and specials. To start a campaign you simply add a special, of which there are five designed to attract new customers and two designed to reward the loyalty of existing customers. These specials (with my suggested ways they might be used) are as follows:

  • Attract new customers
    • Swarm Special (If 10 people check in at the same time you all get 20% off your meal, etc.)
    • Friends Special (Check in with 3 friends and dessert is free for the group)
    • Flash Special (The first 10 check-ins after 8pm get a free beverage)
    • Newbie Special (Get a free appetizer on your first check-in)
    • Check-in Special (Get a half-price beverage every time you check in)
  • Reward existing customers
    • Loyalty Special (Get a free appetizer every fourth time you check in)
    • Mayor Special (The Mayor gets 25% off their entire bill)

Foursquare also provides some nice, printable flyers to hand out to your customers and your employees, so everyone knows how it works and what an “opened” special looks like. Hint – if it’s in black and white, it hasn’t been unlocked. There’s also a lock icon that appears as unlocked when it is.

Ms. Jenning pointed out four good examples of how to (and not to) use Foursquare specials to get the results you’re looking for. I’d like to do the same for four locations in my neighborhood.

Aeropostale

They offer a standard check-in special. Each check-in gets you $10 off a purchase of $50 or more. With a purchase of exactly $50 that works out to a 20% discount; large enough to entice new customers. Frankly, I would have used a straight 20% discount, perhaps with a min (maybe even a max), rather than a minimum purchase. As it stands, if you spend $100 (and who spends only $50 on clothing nowadays?) you’re only getting a 10% discount. Maybe not enough to bring in new business.

Cherry on Top

They also offer a check-in special of 10% off with every check-in. This isn’t a bad deal. Most people are going to go for ice cream or frozen yogurt after a meal, or as a summer-time treat, when they feel like it and, all things being equal, I would go to the place that offers a discount. Most don’t, so I suspect this is at least marginally helping them compete with the other venues in town.

Limon Latin Grill

This one is somewhat similar to the example given by Ms. Jennings of Bangkok Joe’s. It’s a bit puzzling to me why they think this would entice anyone. They actually offer three check-in specials presented as one. Your first check-in is worth $2.00 on a drink, the second is $5.00 off any entree after five check-ins, the third is a free drink after 10 check-ins. This is not an inexpensive restaurant and I believe a normal meal, especially if it includes a drink, will cost at least $20. This makes the second of the specials worth about 5%; not exactly something to write home about. The same goes for the other ones. None of them seem very enticing. I’d be curious to know if they’re getting much action at all. I actually used the first one, but only because I went there to see a friend’s band playing. The waitress was unfamiliar with the entire concept, which leads me to believe they aren’t getting much traction out of the campaign. I’m not surprised.

California Pizza Kitchen

This venue is using a Friends Special, stated so: “Show you phone to a manager and get 20% off when you and 3 friends check-in to the same CPK! Excludes alcohol, tax & gratuity, gift cards. Not valid w/other offers. Valid at participating locations.” What I get from this is the place is probably micromanaged, as I find it a bit mystifying they don’t trust their wait staff to validate the check-ins. It’s also a bit comical to me they feel the need to qualify the offer so carefully. Lighten up! Nevertheless, 20% off isn’t a bad deal for a mid-priced meal with 3 of your BFFs.

There are numerous other examples of specials being offered, many by venues you probably wouldn’t expect to find using them. I want to think about them a little more and maybe drop in to a couple to find out how they’re doing with them. The lesson here – if you’re running a restaurant, bar, nightclub, or a retail store with the potential for lots of foot traffic, your venue has probably already been entered into Foursquare’s database. Now you need to get out there, claim it, and start providing some specials to take advantage of what it has to offer. Remember, IT’S FREE, but that probably won’t last forever. Why not take advantage of it while you can? You’re welcome.


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