What it’s Like to Be The Wall Street Journal’s Friend

Taking the Journal’s Foursquare layer for a test ride

The Wall Street Journal is getting a bit of press about its partnership with Foursquare. For the uninitiated, Foursquare is a location-based social media network, a cross between Twitter and a video game. Users can “check in” to different real-world locations with their smartphones, win “points” according to how many times they do, see on a live map where other Foursquare “friends” are at the moment, and receive “Tips” and reviews from other users about nearby restaurants, bars, and businesses. You can become the “mayor” of a location by being the person who checks in there the most, and many businesses will give small prizes or discounts to their “mayors.” (It’s also a platform with huge potential for advertisers, as you might imagine.)

Now, several news organizations have started their own Foursquare accounts in order to push their online content to users based on their physical location. They call this Foursquare partnership a “layer”—as if the newspaper’s content was superimposed on the physical world. Check out the latest Foursquare posts from The Wall Street Journal here.

The Journal has been experimenting with Foursquare for a few months now, first partnering with Foursquare in April to match its restaurant reviews to the restaurant’s physical locations on the network’s maps (as the Times had already done with restaurants and city events). I decided to try out the new WSJ “layer” and experience New York with Rupert Murdoch as a tour guide.

On Monday afternoon, I walked south on Broadway from the CJR office with a few friends and an iPhone in hand. I had never used Foursquare before (and I don’t even have a smartphone), so I was a good test case for novices. I also tried to sign up for layers of The Huffington Post, New York magazine, and The New York Times. The WSJ filter is the only one that actually showed any content for Morningside Heights (possibly because WSJ outreach editor Zach Seward lives in this area?).

The first and only piece of WSJ content that popped up on my walk was a short, simple restaurant review:

Since you’re so close to Community Food & Juice, The Wall Street Journal says:

“The brunch crowd here is a mix of college students and stroller-steering parents. For traditionalists, there are blueberry pancakes; for the adventurous, coconut pancakes with passion-fruit syrup.”

Not life-changing news, but potentially interesting, I guess. That review was actually the only ping I got from my new friend, WSJ. A glance at all of WSJ’s recent posts shows that they are slowly populating their Foursquare layer—about two or three posts a day—and what’s up there is mostly restaurant reviews. A walk down to midtown or the financial district would have surely yielded more content.

I had assumed it would be distracting, to be bombarded with online news content wherever I walked. But it turns out that, besides the fact that the WSJ simply does not have that much content up yet, Foursquare is pretty distracting on its own. Even if you’re just starting a new Foursquare account, and don’t yet have any friends (as I didn’t), the “Nearby Tips” tab provides a constantly-updating scroll of banter from people you don’t know. Sometimes this banter is useful (on the grocery store Garden of Eden: “Salad bar and sushi half off after 7:30 p.m.). More often than not, it is just complaints (on Rite Aid: “Super long line all the time,” Chipotle: “Why is it always so cold in here??”). The WSJ didn’t have any such vague whining; their Foursquare content is written by staffers in careful, precise prose (“A plentiful BLT is summer comfort food defined,” one post reads).

Having your Foursquare-augmented-reality experience curated by a brand you know and trust might not be so bad. There’s a lot of noise out there; if I’m using Foursquare to augment my reality anyway, maybe I would like to have my pop-ups limited to the things I actually care about. Like, say, information about interesting historical buildings, or a feed of recent news stories linked to the physical locations where they happened.

For instance, walking past New York City Center will trigger a link to a WSJ story entitled “Theaters Playing to Plumper Audiences,” about how the Center is expanding the width of its seats. These little alerts can be silenced, of course; you can indicate whether you would like to accept “Pings” from the WSJ at any time.

Even if you’re reading stories on the WSJ Web site, you can now associate them with real-life, Foursquare-managed experiences. Beneath some restaurant reviews, in addition to the ubiquitous buttons inviting you to post the story to Facebook, Twitter, Digg, StumbleUpon, etc., there is now a Foursquare button. This button launches a pop-up window asking whether you’d like to add the restaurant to your “To Do” list. “Use foursquare to create ‘To Do’ lists of all the things you want to experience,” it reads. “Keep track of restaurants to go to, bands to see or art exhibits to check out.” So the next time you’re out in the world, ambling along with your eyes glued to your phone, you’ll be reminded of these spots when you’re physically close to them.

Other organizations, like The Independent Film Channel, invite its members to write content, too, then curate the best tips to post under the brand name. This idea seems to have a lot of potential: either to really help build brand affinity and user-generated Web content at the same time (see: Yelp), or to be annoying and useless (see: Yelp).

Speaking of Yelp, that’s really all the first posts on Foursquare’s layers look like so far. The Huffington Post reviews a comedy club, for instance, and the IFC promotes a local independent bookstore. It’s branding through association with other brands. There’s just not that much actual news content populated in yet. (Gowalla, a similar program, has its own partnerships with USA Today, The Washington Post and National Geographic, and it’s the same story over there.)

The success of this experiment depends on what kinds of content these papers will choose to feed into the system beyond the shopping-guide type of stuff that’s it’s largely limited to now. In May, the Journal notably used Foursquare for news purposes when it checked into Times Square and notified followers that a suspicious package had prompted police to evacuate the area. More work along these lines could be a fruitful way to use the service. Linking real-world points of interest to articles from the papers’ archives would also be potentially interesting, and could help readers understand current events within a historical context.

In the end, raising brand awareness and providing new advertising opportunities is all well and good. But newspapers should keep thinking about ways to use this tool to contribute to the primary reason for a newspaper’s existence: that is, reporting and publishing the news.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner