Case Study: Optometrist Uses Foursquare to Court Tech-Savvy Patients

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For self-avowed tech junkie Nathan Bonilla-Warford, Foursquare is more than just a tool for discovering new restaurants and keeping up with friends. It’s also one of the primary ways he markets his business as an optometrist and the owner of Bright Eyes Family Vision Care in Tampa, Florida. In addition to keeping up with a company blog, a Twitter feed, and a Facebook page, he also offers discounts to patients who check-in to his practice on Foursquare. In fact, Bonilla-Warford has been credited with coming up with the idea for Foursquare Day back in March of 2010.

Where did your interest in Foursquare begin?
Tampa is sort of a second-tier city when it comes to social media and web technology. Tampa wasn’t unlocked on Foursquare until November 2009. Up until that point, I had just sort of seen people check-in using Foursquare on Twitter, but it was mostly people in New York and California. So I was very intrigued, but I didn’t understand it back then. I had signed up to get notified when Tampa was unlocked, so when it did and they opened up Foursquare to everywhere, that night I went home and I wrote a blog post for my business blog basically saying, “I think this is going to be really big and I encourage people to check-in.” Of course, nobody did back then because nobody really knew what it was. You know, the concept of checking in was still really new. I started using [Foursquare] personally and just really enjoyed it, and I’ve enjoyed watching the features evolve and the growth of the users – Foursquare just reached 10 million users, which is a pretty big milestone.

So, from the very beginning I saw both sides of it. I saw the personal use for both fun and the game-ification of it, and I saw the personal use for discounts and loyalty awards. But, I always saw using it to promote my business, to get exposure, and to reward loyalty. So, it was a completely natural organic development for me over the last couple of years.

When did you first start noticing Foursquare catching on in Tampa?
Well my vantage point is skewed, but I’ve heard from so many people — and this correlates with my own experience with the office — that it really was Foursquare Day that got them involved. They had never heard about it before; they had never thought about it. If they had heard about it, it sounded hokey. But it was Foursquare Day 2010 — the first one that really got communities on board and social media evangelists who really like using social media to empower local businesses, small businesses, local nonprofits, and those kinds of things. Those are the people who really, really got on board — and immediately. I think for a lot of people, at least in Tampa, it was a really big deal. It showed people some of the possibilities and that was one of the things that was exciting about it.

In terms of marketing, does Foursquare help bring new patients into your office?
Yeah, I know it does. Because as part of our marketing research we query all new patients and they let us know what influenced [them] to come in. They can check off Facebook, Yelp, Foursquare, the blog, or various things. There are people who will check off Foursquare. I mean, that’s not a huge percentage of our patients because it’s a pretty niche thing for the average person.

My goal for the last several years has been to become the eye care provider of choice for the social tech scene here in Tampa Bay. So, we’ve been very active in blogging, Twitter, and Facebook. It was natural for us to proceed as aggressively as we could with Foursquare and those sorts of location-based services. So yes, absolutely, we know that people have come in. Peripherally, a lot of people have not understood the story [of Foursquare Day], but the fact that I was on the news and the fact that I got to present a press release with the real mayor, Bob Buckhorn of Tampa, just increases our awareness. So that’s not location-based services explicitly, but the attention that it has gotten has absolutely been positive.

From the perspective of a business owner, what have you learned about hyperlocal marketing that other businesses don’t quite understand?
I think part of it is that you have to do different things and see where your patients are. Before Foursquare Day, I had written a blog post on my personal blog and I was throwing the question out there, I said, “Which is more popular in Tampa, Yelp or Foursquare?” I had friends who had a lot of success with Yelp in the bigger metropolitan areas, but I wasn’t seeing it here. At the time, people either weren’t sure or said, “Well, I give the edge to Foursquare but none are really popular.” I do believe eventually that Yelp will be successful, but we’ve tried different promotions on Yelp and we’ve been super disappointed. I mean, we haven’t seen time or money really materialize or translate into increased patients at all. My point with that is you can’t get too wrapped up in any one particular venue or channel, and you have to really find out what your patients or customers are interested in and pursue that. It’s like any part of marketing. It’s a combination of your instincts, but you have to back it up with some data. You have to really look at what are people really doing.

Looking forward, what do you see as the future of location-based platforms and hyperlocal marketing for businesses?
Well, I think obviously the penetration is going to pick up because it’s still quite small. It’s like 4 or 5 percent, depending on which survey you’re looking at. So, it’s still, by definition, early adopters. I think it will mature and I think things are going to simultaneously get simpler and also get richer. I know that with Foursquare – I had been thinking for a while that the check-in process was cumbersome. So, they redesigned the application to make it slightly easier and they’ve been working towards that for a while. Yet, people aren’t comfortable with auto check-ins and I’m not either. I’m opposed to those for a number of reasons. However, I think that as a culture and as people who use these services, the dataset that is generated both by the companies and also personally allows for more and broader use of the service. So, I don’t know how all that is going to play out, but I think as more people use it and as the systems get more refined, we’ll find they are very useful for layering onto other aspects of life that I haven’t thought about yet. I think that is super exciting.

I am also one of the local bloggers for our Patch site here, which started maybe six or eight months ago. I don’t get paid for it or anything, but I like the concept of Patch. Even here, where it started a little later than some of the other [cities], different people I know are saying, “Oh I’m blogging about food for my neighborhood Patch and I’m doing this and that.” Whether or not the model is going to be sustainable and work, I don’t know. But it is fun.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.