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Using Foursquare for Environmental Causes

Commuters on BART will soon see images of oil rig platforms, Lake Tahoe, and the little furry endangered pika at train stations this summer and—using the popular emerging social networking tool Foursquare—help support these environmental causes. The ads are part of a new set of public service announcements by Earthjustice, an environmental nonprofit, that aims to attract new supporters by leveraging Foursquare’s ability to “check in” at a location.

Since its grand coming-out party at this year’s South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Foursquare has been rapidly attracting large numbers of users—it recently hit its 1 million user mark—using geolocation-based technology that enables users to broadcast their location in real time to friends within their social network via their cell phones. Each time they “check-in” at a location, they are awarded points, and the more points users accumulate, the more chances they have at becoming “mayors” of a location or get awarded bragging rights in the form of virtual badges.

Despite the light-hearted gaming aspect of Foursquare, nonprofits such as Earthjustice are embarking on new ways to leverage its growing popularity to help support their cause, especially among a younger audience.

“We didn’t want to do just another ad. We wanted to engage people on environmental issues that are important to Californians, and do it in a way that’s fun and cutting edge,” says Georgia McIntosh, Vice President of Communications for Earthjustice. “Location-based technology like Foursquare is definitely at the cutting edge right now.”

Realizing that the San Francisco Bay Area boasts the largest number of Foursquare users in the nation, Earthjustice approached one of its younger major donors in the Bay Area with the proposal of donating $10 each time a commuter checks in at an Earthjustice poster on BART. The response was immediate and positive. “We recognize that some of the more traditional ways of attracting supporters don’t always work for a younger audience,” says McIntosh. “You need to engage with them on their turf, whether it’s Foursquare, Twitter or Facebook.” Aside from the donation aspect, the check-ins also have the additional benefit of encouraging users to learn more about Earthjustice through other Foursquare features, such as tips or “shout outs.”

McIntosh realizes that Foursquare is a new emerging technology that does not yet have the wide market penetration that Facebook and Twitter enjoy. But she says that’s only a matter of time. “Foursquare is now where Twitter was just a few years ago. And look how fast Twitter has taken off.”

The PR effort behind the ad series got a substantial boost from the renewed national debate on offshore oil drilling following the devastating BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico—one of the timely topics highlighted in the ads. Whether the ads themselves will generate large amounts of donations remains to be seen, but the media attention that Earthjustice is enjoying for being at the forefront of adopting Foursquare for nonprofit advocacy is encouraging.

As for Foursquare users on BART, they will indeed get their shot at becoming the “mayor” of Earthjustice ads and protecting the environment, all while doing their daily commute.

Members of the media interested in Earthjustice's Foursquare ad campaign should contact Ray Wan at rwan@earthjustice.org or (510) 550-6712.