Using FourSquare, Gowalla and Facebook Places in Political Campaigns

Guest article! Below is the latest from Kayle Hatt, a Canadian political organizer who works with candidates on field organizing and communication and who earlier wrote about candidates and social media and about social media in that far distant land to the North. Kayle’s been awol from the site b/c of successive Canadian elections keeping him busy (he holds province-wide party office with the Ontario New Democratic Party), but his left-wingers made major gains in recent federal and provincial elections, so we’ll forgive him — this time.

Hey Everyone, Look Where I Am! Using FourSquare, Gowalla and Facebook Places in Your Political Campaigns

By Kayle Hatt

At this point the classic real estate saying “Location, Location, Location” has transitioned into the catagory of cliché, but politicos know that location matters. Political battlegrounds are drawn along the lines of wards, districts and, in parliamentary traditions, ridings. Targeting can be broken down into census tracks or demographic clusters. We colour our geographic zones by their red-to-blue leanings and view them accordingly (or in Canada, blue-to-red-to-orange leanings). And, of course, voters care profoundly about their small corner of the world.

I think it’s fair to say that politics and location are completely interconnected. So wouldn’t it be great if you could integrate this concept of location into your social media campaign?

Well, I have good news for you… You can!

Meet the Location-Based Social Media Networks

Do you have a smart phone?

Of course, you do, right? About two-thirds of new cellphones sold in North America these days are smartphones and just under half of cellphone users have a smartphone. In urban areas, among younger demographics or professionals, that percentage is much higher. (Of course, if you’re running a small rural campaign, keep in mind that the reverse is also true.)

The location-based social media tools are built upon this proliferation of smart phones — most of which have mobile GPS features built-in to them. These location-based tools allow participants to ‘check-in’ at their physical location and share that information with their friends and social media networks online.

On these social media networks, FourSquare, Gowalla and Facebook Places, users and businesses have created these specific locations (Joe’s Pizzeria, the Anywhereville Library, etc) that are recognizable by the GPS on your smartphone and, using the network, users can see people who have ‘checked-in’ at the same spot as you or were their friends have checked-in. (If you want more of a primer on these services and how they work, read this article by Total Politics, a UK-focused elections magazine; however the following will assume some basic knowledge and will build from there.)

So how can you use these tools in you campaign? Well, I have three strategy suggestions for you.

The Campaign Office

In my opinion, volunteers are the most important resource that a campaign can have. I draw that opinion from my ‘field’ background and, while some may disagree (those from a mass communications background often argue that money is more important), the fact remains that most campaigns are constantly looking for more volunteers. Even campaigns that have a lot of volunteers still don’t have enough — you can never have too many!

One of the best ways to get new volunteers is to encourage your existing volunteers to talk to their friends about volunteering and social media is great for this. If you aren’t asking your volunteers to tweet or post Facebook updates about volunteering, then you should be.

Creating a location for your campaign office on FourSquare or Facebook Places is simply taking this to the next level. Volunteers can check-in to your office when they arrive, essentially telling their social media friends “Hey everyone, look where I am! I’m volunteering for candidate XYZ, why don’t you come join me.”

Many good field organizers and ground-focused campaigns have already started to do this … and so should you.

The Local Candidate

As I said above, voters care about neighbourhoods and their small corner of the world. Voters love to know that candidates are visiting their area and are therefore, in some small way, connected to their lives.

How many candidate tweets have you seen tweeting their location or updating their Facebook feed with items from their schedule? This is good (in moderation. Please, god, please don’t let the entire social media feed for your campaign be a carbon copy of your schedule) but the great thing about using these location-based tools is that people can see them after the fact. Someone who uses FourSquare, for example, in their daily life might see that your candidate visited the same coffee shop as them.

This strategy is great for highly localized campaigns or municipal elections.

Bonus points go to campaigns that leave “tips” or comments on the discussion boards at various locations; but don’t spam. For a coffee shop, I’d suggest something along the line of “Thanks for supporting local businesses. I had the fair trade dark-roast coffee blend and it was really good. I highly recommend it. — Joe Smith, Candidate for State Senate in District 4”

Also, an important note: You can use social media to make notes of where you’re personally canvassing but mention neighbourhoods not specific streets. I’ve worked on/with more than one campaign where our opponents would post the street they canvassed on. Each time we made sure to saturate that area with our message afterwards.

The Regional, State(Provincial) or National Campaign

So you have a larger campaign spread over a significant geographical area, your campaign probably has more than one office and a dedicated team working on the tour operations of your candidate … you can do the things mentioned above but why not also play ‘follow-the-leader’.

Using location-based services will allow your campaign to highlight your candidates travels to supporters, reporters and voters. Perhaps a specific feature on your website can allow visitors to follow the movements of your candidate “on the road to The White House/Congress/The State Legislature/The House of Commons/etc.”

For donors, the subtle message would be ‘look at all that travel, you donation is helping our campaign reach voters in all these areas.’ For reporters, it would be ‘see how credible our campaign is’ (especially during primaries). For voters, you could have a feature to ‘find an event near me’ which could highlight previous events near them, show a listing of any future events and give people a chance to sign-up for emails to keep them informed for future events.


Or play around with these services. Try new and innovative things.

1996 was the first presidential election campaigns where candidates actually had websites and those were mostly just online pamphlets. Ten years ago, email had almost no impact on campaigning. Online engagement, social media campaigning, online ads, text messaging and every other form of ePolitics-style campaigning are all somewhat recent developments and products of on-going innovations.

… and of course, when you try new and innovative things, let the good folks at know about it.

For more on location-based services and politics, see Geo-Social Street Wars in Election 2010? and Get in the Game: Political Advocacy and Foursquare.

Written by
Kayle Hatt
View all articles