Taking the Geosocial Leap

Matthew Herek currently serves as the assistant director of young alumni in the office of alumni relations and development at Northwestern University.

When Foursquare debuted at South By Southwest in 2009, the concept of “checking-in” at different venues was a novel one. A close circle of friends could keep tabs on each other via an app. My own experience was that people were hot and cold on the concept. Either you thought it was fun and worthwhile or you thought it was a gigantic hassle and an invasion of your privacy.

As often seems to be the case with new apps, colleges and universities began toying with the idea of using geosocial apps like Foursquare on their campuses. At Northwestern, we had a long conversation about its potential, but could never quite find a solid reason to use it for alumni engagement, other than that “all the cool kids seem to be doing it.” In a world of limited resources and time, that was not the best argument.

So we waited in the tall grass, curating our Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn spaces while keeping an eye on the growth of geosocial with Facebook Places, Gowalla and SCVNGR. It was SCVNGR that got my attention at the CASE Social Media & Community conference earlier this year. The app combined two of my favorite things, social media and a healthy sense of competition. SCVNGR allows you to set up a directed, asynchronous scavenger hunt (or trek) through several places or events. As a participant in the conference, I took part in a SCVNGR trek throughout our three days in San Francisco.

SCVNGR resonated with me as a tool with strong potential for alumni engagement for these reasons:

  1. It does not require a person to build a network of friends and followers to participate. A person can download the app, participate in the trek and never log on again until the next trek.
  2. There is an actual competition involved. Social gaming is huge (just check the latest valuation of Zynga, creator of Farmville and Words With Friends, if you don’t believe me). By injecting a competition factor into the app, a purpose is created for the user.
  3. The treks can be asynchronous. There is no need for everyone to start together at point A and move en masse to point B. SCVNGR allows for fluid entry and exit points.

Given the low barrier to entry, we made the decision to use SCVNGR during our annual senior week, which our office co-sponsors with the division of student affairs.

We announced, in advance, that the winner of the SCVNGR trek would receive an Ipad2 as a way to increase participation.

The trek was designed to cover approximately 10 of the senior week events. Each event had 1-3 challenges. Some examples:

  1. Get your picture taken with the president of the alumni association.
  2. What was one thing you learned at Last Lecture? (Last Lecture is an event where a professor, selected by the students, addresses them at a local bar.)
  3. Find the assistant director of young alumni and get the secret password! (I am the assistant director. This gave me a chance to meet some of the constituents for whom I am responsible.)

Approximately 75 students took part in different aspects of the SCVNGR trek. I was impressed, considering this was our first use of the software. I give a lot of credit to the staff at SCVNGR who are incredibly helpful when it comes to designing treks. They recently launched a microsite for higher education institutions that use the app.

As with any new endeavor, I did learn a few lessons that will inform our future use of SCVNGR:

  1. A smaller trek will have a better chance of gaining traction. I built 23 challenges spread over 10 events. Many of our students choose to attend 1-5 events during senior week. Those that did not attend a lot of the events did not enter the trek because they did not think they would have a chance at winning it. A better plan would have been to have a higher number of challenges at fewer events with higher attendance.
  2. Find an effective way to market the trek. Having a prize certainly helped us, but I think there was confusion as to why we were asking people to use the app. Students need to hear from their peers why it can be a fun thing to do. Those who participated enjoyed doing so, but many just didn’t get it.
  3. Take the same amount of time planning a trek as you would any alumni event. Yes, it’s asynchronous, but you are still putting your organization’s name on it. We decided a little late in the game to pilot this with senior week. The first meeting you have about a SCVNGR trek should not involve a computer, it should involve a pen and paper to design an effective trek.

Going forward we have two specific ideas for using SCVNGR:

  1. Utilize it at our reunion activities for graduates of the last decade to encourage alumni to generate photos and connect with one other.
  2. Develop treks in cities with large alumni populations that point out the “places you need to know” as a new graduate living in a particular city.

If you use geosocial apps or are thinking about it, what other potential uses can you think of?

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