In an effort to market her business to deal-seeking customers without breaking Kansas’ strict liquor laws—which place limitations on the types of drink specials that bars can offer—Debbi Johanning has had to get creative. At The Sandbar in Lawrence, KS, which she and her husband David co-own, Johanning has offered free jukebox credits to people who check-in on Foursquare and even created a special “Fail Whale” shot to promote a community tweetup. The promotions appear to be working: The Sandbar unlocked a Swarm Badge last year, and Johanning says the increase in buzz has been good for her business.
How do you advertise or market your business?
Most everything is online. We’ve had a website since the middle of the ’90s, and once upon a time, one of our bartenders set up a webcam—probably around ’97. It was unique at the time and not something a lot of people were doing, so we had some attention around that. Then I got interested in MySpace when it was popular. It just progressed from there. We rarely advertise in newspapers. Every once in a while we’ll run an ad in the local university paper, and before we did our annual block party this year, we ran radio ads. But typically, we’re not doing any types of traditional advertising. It’s pretty much all Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, and our blog.
What’s the reason for the lack of traditional advertising?
Really, just expense. We’re in a weird position because we’re typically already busy on the weekend nights and several other nights during the week—a lot of times we have lines because of fire code capacity. We haven’t been able to figure out a way to advertise and get people in after work, more like the 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. crowd. We’re already busy [late] at night, so advertising seems like a lost cause. We don’t want to have more people standing in line outside, so that’s a lot of it.
So how did you originally get involved in marketing with Foursquare?
I had gotten interested in Facebook and Twitter, and it just was a natural progression. It came out and I thought, “Oh, that looks cool. I want to try it.” I had a lot of trouble at first when I tried to claim the business and set it up, but that was pretty early on. When I personally joined Foursquare, it was when they were still limiting it and they had just opened up the Kansas City area. They didn’t have any of the tools they have now for businesses to claim [themselves]. It was very manual and very aggravating, actually. It’s a lot easier now, but [in the beginning] it was more just for fun than anything else.
What specific tools are making it easier on you now than before?
Well it doesn’t help me, but for new businesses to claim their places, the automatic-claiming mechanism is a lot easier. They’ve added statistics that give gender breakdowns and age breakdowns and [show] how many people are checking in and posting to Twitter or Facebook—things like that. I can’t say that I do a lot with that information, but it’s kind of interesting to look at. I used a third party application for a while, called Sprout Social. It was free at the time, and they provided some things like e-mail notifications when someone checked into the business, things [that were] pretty instantaneous and pretty helpful. They went to a paid model, so I’m not using it now.
Did you start using something different to replace Sprout Social or do you just not keep track of the Foursquare data anymore?
I don’t keep track of it as closely as I used to. One of our tech friends tried to write a program to replicate that process, because I did like getting the e-mail notifications when someone checked in, but I don’t think it’s working. [Now] I will go and check the stats [on Foursquare] periodically. Usually what I end up doing is just looking for mentions on Twitter by people checking in and I’ll respond to them or thank them or interact with them in some way. I’m not very diligent about checking the Foursquare stats.
What makes people want to check-in at your bar?
I think a lot of it is because people know that we’re really active with all types of social media, and so we’ve drawn that type of crowd. I know check-ins are on the rise; Foursquare is catching on more with younger college students and younger users instead of just the social media geek community. I think that helps. I’ve run some specials different times, and I don’t know that that really generated a lot of check-ins. It’s seems like most of the check-ins were from typical people checking in. There’s always a new person here and there, but it seems to be just the regular crowd, for the most part.
I read that The Sandbar was one of the first places in Kansas to unlock the Swarm Badge last year. How did that come about?
It wasn’t planned at all. I think we were the first one in Kansas. I don’t know that for sure, but I think we were. There was a social media conference in town, so there were probably 200 to 250 people there. That night there was a tweetup downtown, and we were one of the places that participated. We had a “Fail Whale” shot special and silly things like that. Of the businesses that were participating in the tweetup, we were really the only ones [that] were responding to people [on Twitter]. The Swarm Badge just built upon itself. People were coming to The Sandbar, and at one point we tweeted, “Maybe we can get the Swarm Badge,” and it just triggered a reaction. Everybody who was already here was checking in and more people were coming and tweeting. It was really nerdy and geeky, but it worked. It was really fun, and it gave people something to talk about.
Did getting the Swarm Badge help your business financially in any way?
It’s hard to say. I know a lot of people were there from out of town, so I don’t know if a lot of them ever came back. That night was huge; there was a huge chaos in sales that night. As far as sales and hard numbers, I don’t know. Anecdotally, yes, I think it did help. In the long run, it’s getting the bar’s name out to people who are in the community.
What value do location-based platforms bring to a bar like yours?
It’s hard for a bar in Kansas. Because the state’s liquor laws are really strict, we don’t have happy hours. Alcohol and beer have to be the same price all-day for everybody, so it’s hard for a bar that doesn’t sell food or anything else to do a lot with [Foursquare specials]. I know one special that we ran for a while was, “every third check-in you get five free jukebox credits.” That was popular. I don’t think it really contributed to bringing new people in, but it rewarded regular customers. I think a lot of businesses around town can use it to draw in new customers with a discount or offering them something free with a purchase. I’ve gone to places specifically because they had a Foursquare special, so I think it’s helpful. It’s [just] hard for a bar.
So Kansas’ state liquor laws prevent you from offering specials on alcoholic drinks?
Right. It can’t be tied to a check-in. It would have to be a special that’s available to anyone, which defeats the purpose of checking-in. It just forces us to be a little more creative.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.